Bay State congressman may seek Ways and Means helm

Neal has less seniority than interim pick

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts is planning to seek the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee later this year or early next year, once the House resolves ethics questions about the panel’s former leader, Charles Rangel, who has temporarily stepped down and is not expected to return, several sources close to the Springfield Democrat said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced yesterday that Representative Sander Levin, Democrat of Michigan, would serve as interim chairman of the tax-writing committee, filling in while the House decides Rangel’s fate. Rangel, of New York, stepped down as chairman Wednesday after the Ethics Committee admonished him for accepting a corporate-paid trip to the Caribbean, and other alleged ethics transgressions are still under inquiry.

Once the committee finishes its work on Rangel either this year or next, many Democrats believe Neal, the 61-year-old former Springfield mayor, will be a strong contender for the job, though the House could be in for an internal battle if Levin also seeks the post.

Neal, who is in his 11th term, has less House seniority than Levin, who is in his 14th term.

“I think Richie is probably the most capable and knowledgeable person that we have on the Ways and Means Committee,’’ said Representative John Larson, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the House Democratic caucus, which would cast the ultimate vote on the chairmanship.

“I think he has extraordinary ability, and I think he has the confidence of the members of the Ways and Means Committee,’’ said Larson, who must officially remain neutral because of his caucus chairmanship position.

Neal declined to say what his plans are, but did not dispute reports of his serious interest in the chairmanship. And he said he was not deterred by Pelosi’s decision to give the chairmanship temporarily to Levin.

“The speaker came in and said: ‘There’s a lot on the table. I don’t want a chairmanship succession fight,’ ’’ Neal said, describing a closed Democratic caucus meeting Thursday morning. Instead of having an open election for the highly-coveted job, Pelosi said she wanted Levin to assume the role until Rangel’s fate is determined.

Alan Mlynek, a spokesman for Levin, declined comment on a potential challenge.

If Neal were able to overcome arguments about seniority and wrest control, the small Bay State congressional delegation would have stunning influence over economic issues in Congress. Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton, already chairs the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees regulation of Wall Street. Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, is a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which also deals with federal financial matters.

Choosing chairmen on Capitol Hill is a delicate yet often brutal process, as lawmakers seek to make powerful alliances without offending other colleagues who may be friends or whose support they may someday need.

The chairmanship usually goes to the next senior member of the majority party, but challenges do happen. Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, for example, successfully ousted veteran Representative John Dingell for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That coup pleased some who felt Dingell was too supportive of industry on climate-change issues. But the move made other members uncomfortable, because the 83-year-old Dingell is such an institution on the Hill.

Rather than serve as a template, the Dingell episode could harm Neal’s chances, because some members may not like the idea of once again pushing aside a more senior person - and another member from Michigan.

“It’s an issue. It’s a big issue,’’ said a Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named.

Regional rivalries also come into play in such battles, with lawmakers often galvanizing behind colleagues from the same state or part of the country. While Neal is well liked and respected on the panel, some House Democrats may not be open to the idea of two lawmakers in the 10-member Massachusetts delegation holding important chairmanships - especially because two other Bay Staters, Representatives Edward J. Markey of Malden and James P. McGovern of Worcester - are very close to the top spots in their respective committees.

“It’s also pretty personality-driven,’’ added a senior Democratic Hill aide. “It’s hard to handicap, because they all have interesting, diverse careers. Each has a reason for, and a reason against,’’ voting for them.