Political Notebook

Neal poised to become head Democrat on Ways and Means

President Obama met yesterday with Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski (center), who backed New START. President Obama met yesterday with Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski (center), who backed New START. (Dennis Brack/ Getty Images Pool)
December 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Representative Richard E. Neal last night won a key endorsement to become the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, bucking the seniority system and paving the way for him to take one of the top leadership posts on Capitol Hill.

Neal, a Springfield Democrat, was endorsed by the Steering and Policy Committee to become the ranking member of Ways and Means next year. He won narrowly — by a single vote, 23 to 22 — to defeat Representative Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has more seniority.

“Obviously I’m very pleased,’’ Neal said in a brief interview. “I’m delighted.’’

Levin had been acting chairman of the committee since March, when Representative Charles B. Rangel stepped aside amid ethics charges. In addition, five Democrats on the committee had more seniority than Neal, so his nomination was rare and significant.

He still has to be confirmed by the full Democratic caucus today, but those close to Neal have been confident that, if everyone sticks by their pledges, he would win the full vote. It is unclear whether Levin will challenge the recommendation in the full caucus.

If the caucus confirms Neal, he would become the Democratic point man on one of the most pivotal committees in Congress — and one that will probably see a lot of movement under a Republican House majority.

The Committee on Ways and Means has broad oversight of Social Security, Medicare, tariffs, and trade agreements. Every tax proposal that raises revenue begins in the committee. At a time when there is growing concern over the deficit and tax policies, the committee will be extraordinarily active. Under Republicans, the committee could also try to strip parts of President Obama’s signature health care law.

Neal, as ranking member, would be the chief Democrat attempting to challenge Republicans on those issues. He would bring further clout to a Bay State delegation that has long had members in positions of power.

Neal had been quietly preparing to make a run for the committee chairmanship for more than a year. But since Republicans won the majority in the House in the midterm elections, he would instead be the ranking Democrat on the committee. Still, that gives Neal a high profile, and he would also be positioned to seize the gavel should Democrats win back the House majority. — MATT VISER

George H.W. Bush backs Obama on nuclear treaty
WASHINGTON — Pushing a top foreign policy priority, President Obama expressed confidence yesterday the Senate would quickly ratify a US-Russia nuclear arms pact that secured a major endorsement — President George H.W. Bush.

Obama drew specific attention to Polish support for the treaty after meeting with Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski, in the White House Oval Office.

The treaty, known as New START, has been a central piece of Obama’s agenda for the lame-duck session of Congress. Ratification has bogged down as Republicans have sought assurances that the remaining US arsenal would continue to be modernized.

Obama, noting he has discussed the pending treaty with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said: “I am confident that we are going to be able to get the START treaty on the floor, debated and completed before we break for the holidays.’’

Later, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: “I think if they voted on it right now it would pass.’’

Bush — who signed the START II treaty with President Boris Yeltsin of Russia in 1993 — added his support with a brief statement: “I urge the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty.’’

Komorowski, seated at Obama’s side, said New START ratification would be an investment in a better and safer future.

“We are not able to fully reset and delete 1,000 years of uneasy history with Russians, but we do not want to be an obstacle,’’ Komorowski said, speaking through a translator. “We want to be a help in the process of resetting the relations between the Western world with Russia.’’

Some Republicans, most prominently Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, have expressed worries that the nuclear treaty would cause unease among allies in Eastern Europe. Obama said he emphasized US determination to “stand by Poland in its defense and its security needs.’’

Obama said international allies, including Poland, and “basically the entire national security apparatus of previous Democratic and Republican administrations’’ have come out in support of the treaty — all of which, he said, gives him confidence the Senate will ratify it.

The treaty would cut the limits on strategic warheads to 1,550 from the current ceiling of 2,200 for the United States and Russia. The pact also would establish new procedures to allow both countries to inspect each other’s nuclear arsenals.

In recent days, several Republicans have voiced support for the agreement, increasing its chances of ratification. Republicans, however, have also insisted that they would not take up any other issue until Congress completes action on the tax plan and on a broad spending measure to continue paying for government operations. — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Bill on immigrant students clears House, faces hurdle
A bill to grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students passed the House of Representatives late yesterday, giving President Obama an unexpected although largely symbolic victory in the final days of Democratic control of Congress on an issue he has called a top priority.

The bill, known as the Dream Act, passed the House by a vote of 216 to 198. But a vote in the Senate on opening debate was scheduled for today, and it seemed likely to fail there.

Still, Democratic leaders celebrated the House vote, which gave them a triumph in the final days of the congressional session before they yield the majority next year to Republicans. It also gave them something to show Hispanic voters, who could play a pivotal role in the 2012 presidential election.

The measure was supported by eight Republicans, including three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Thirty-eight Democrats voted against it.

Democrats supported it as a way to help young immigrants who were brought here illegally as children by their parents. — NEW YORK TIMES top stories on Twitter

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