The race is on for permanent control of the Ways and Means Committee.
The Democrats’ decision to install 78-year-old Michigan Rep. Sander Levin as acting chairman of the panel Thursday forestalled a brutal fight for the support of leaders and rank-and-file members.
But it also served as the starting gun for a minimarathon that will decide who gets power over tax, trade and entitlement policy for years to come.
Out of respect for New York Rep. Charles Rangel — who insists he’ll regain the gavel once the ethics committee gives him a clean bill of health — the candidates for the top spot at Ways and Means aren’t declaring their plans just yet.
But a lobbyist with close ties to House Democrats said he expects to “hear of preparations in the coming weeks.”
It may not even take that long.
Sources close to Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who is sixth in seniority on the panel, say he’s reviewing his options and has significant support from Democratic colleagues and business interests on K Street.
Neal would have to climb over Levin, Washington Rep. Jim McDermott and Georgia Rep. John Lewis to get the gavel.
Asked about his own intentions Thursday, McDermott, cited a Rangel saying that every member of every committee plans to be chairman or chairwoman someday.
“There’s always time to consider things,” he said.
Levin wound up in charge at the end of a 24-hour pass-the-gavel game in which Rangel resigned because of ethics troubles and California Rep. Pete Stark stepped down at the urging of colleagues who worried his bombastic style could hurt the party.
Stark’s decision to step aside allowed Levin, the next in seniority, to become acting chairman without the involvement of the full Democratic Caucus, or its steering committee, a speaker-dominated panel that makes highly influential recommendations for committee and chairmanship assignments.
That suited the needs of Democratic leaders, who didn’t want a nasty public fight over the gavel while they try to complete work on a landmark health care bill and head into a tough election season. It also gave the Ways and Means Committee members something they wanted: a chairman other than Stark.
The need to push the donnybrook into next year was so intense that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even floated the idea of a power-sharing arrangement between Stark and Levin — a compromise that would have averted a multicandidate race now and prevented Stark from having unfettered power.
The committee, in a rare rebuke of the speaker, rejected that plan out of hand during a Wednesday meeting, according to lawmakers and aides familiar with the discussion.
But by the time the panel’s Democrats reconvened Thursday morning, Stark had decided to step aside.
Heading into an election year, Levin provides Democrats with a welcome respite from Rangel, whose standing had been tarnished by an ethics ruling that he broke House gift rules by accepting corporate-sponsored travel to the Caribbean.
Democrats, from the leadership to the back benches, saw Stark as a potential liability because of his penchant for firing off offensive remarks at a wide range of people, including fellow lawmakers, ethics investigators and even constituents.
Stark said he gave up the full committee gavel — which he acquired automatically upon Rangel’s resignation — because he wanted to focus on his work as head of the Health Subcommittee.
“Once we pass health reform, it will take careful oversight to make sure that it is being implemented correctly,” Stark said in a statement released Thursday morning.
But fellow Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee had made clear to him that he would have difficulty winning in a contested race against Levin or anyone else on the panel.
Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Stark on Wednesday that his stepping aside would be in the best interests of the party, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the meeting.
Levin, who headed the panel’s Trade Subcommittee, won praise from Rangel.
“Under the circumstances, I could not think of anyone who could serve the country, the Congress and our committee better than Sandy Levin,” Rangel said.