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Democratic win would strengthen state's clout
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington's most liberal congressman, is called courageous by his fans and an embarrassment bordering on irrelevant by his detractors.
Next month, both camps may be calling him Mr. Chairman.
If Democrats win control of the House, McDermott could become an important politician.
He'd get a subcommittee chairmanship on the House Ways and Means Committee, a platform he says he'd use to push for universal health-care coverage and alternative energy.
Speculation about McDermott's potential elevation — and that of other Democrats, such as Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton — is part of the grand guessing game in full swing on Capitol Hill.
If Democrats win
Would chair subcommittee that oversees funding for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency and has a shot at leading the defense Appropriations panel. That could be a boon for Boeing's federal contracts.
Rep. Jim McDermott
Would chair a subcommittee on Ways and Means, which handles tax legislation, and says he'd push universal health-care coverage and alternative-energy use.
With midterm elections nine days away, many polls suggest a Democratic victory in the House, and perhaps even in the Senate.
What would a switch from Republican to Democratic control in Congress mean for Washington state?
In general, the state's congressional clout would increase, because of the number and seniority of Democrats from Washington. They outnumber Republicans in the House delegation 6-3 and hold both Senate seats.
All of the state's House Democrats are expected to win in the Nov. 7 election. Sen. Maria Cantwell is leading her opponent in the polls, and Sen. Patty Murray isn't up for election until 2010.
Dicks, with 30 years in the House, and McDermott, with 18, have the tenure to play key roles in a Democratic House. By comparison, the senior Washington Republican, Doc Hastings of Pasco, has 12 years experience. The other two, Dave Reichert of Auburn and Cathy McMorris of Spokane, are freshmen engaged in tough re-election battles.
Dicks would be the House delegation's biggest winner. He would chair one of the 13 Appropriations subcommittees and might find himself in a position to steer more federal contracts to Boeing.
The state's four more-junior Democrats have not made their marks in national legislation, although Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma could end up with a choice role on the Armed Services Committee.
If Democrats take the Senate, Murray would chair one of that chamber's Appropriations subcommittees, allowing her to funnel more federal money to the state.
Cantwell, if she survives a re-election challenge by Republican Mike McGavick, could chair a subcommittee on Commerce.
A shift in power doesn't automatically mean Democrats would get their way. The Senate could put the brakes on an exuberant House, and President Bush can veto bills he doesn't like.
Former Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Reichert's predecessor in the 8th District, warned that Democrats could try to raise taxes and, in a nod to labor, weaken free-trade agreements, a major issue for trade-dependent Washington state.
Washington also would lose its influence on the House Homeland Security Committee, where Reichert chairs a subcommittee, said Dunn, a lobbyist for DLA Piper, one of the largest lobbying firms in D.C.
A new way — or repay?
First up if Democrats win: a sea change in how Congress operates, Dicks said.
"No more 2 ˝-day work weeks," he said, referring to the abbreviated schedule imposed by GOP leaders. "We're going to work five days a week."
Dicks reflects general Democratic anger at how Republican leaders manage the House. They complain the GOP limits amendments, debate and hearings, and unveils complicated legislation only hours before a vote.
But that does not mean, McDermott said, that Democrats should seek revenge for perceived wrongs. "A number of us have sat down and said that if we go for payback we will deserve to be thrown out on our ears," he said.
Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, an influential, center-left D.C. think tank, doubts that view will triumph. "Is there no sense of retribution? Two years to a presidential election? It's open season!" he said.
Committee chairs are the spoils for the party in power. Committee and subcommittee leaders set the legislative agenda, schedule hearings and witnesses, and enjoy higher visibility in Congress. On appropriations committees, chairmen and chairwomen can add and remove money from budget bills.
Dicks would be in line to chair the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles money for the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and related matters.
But he could end up leading the prized defense Appropriations subcommittee, if Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., were to become majority leader, a position he has said he wants. Murtha currently is the ranking Democrat on defense Appropriations.
That would be good news for Boeing. Dicks is Boeing's best friend in Congress and has pushed hard for the company against foreign competitor Airbus. Among other things, he helped get language that benefits Boeing in Pentagon guidelines for pending Air Force tanker contracts.
Dicks also vows more oversight of Iraq war contractors, such as Halliburton, and their profits. He said Congress needs a panel modeled after the Truman commission, a committee established by then-Sen. Harry Truman that investigated waste and abuse among military contractors during World War II.
"It's long overdue," Dicks said.
Expect Democrats to examine corporate practices, profits and tax breaks, too. The scandals of Enron, hedge funds, the insurance industry and big drug makers have given Democrats plenty of fodder, Dicks and McDermott said.
"All the committees will be more aggressive on oversight. You'll see a lot of CEOs in the House being sworn in," said T.J. Petrizzo, a lobbyist with Seattle clients.
The 2003 Medicare drug bill also is in the Democrats' sights. They want to repeal rules that prevent the government from negotiating bulk drug prices with pharmaceutical firms.
"Medicare is the low-hanging fruit," McDermott said. "If that doesn't go in a flash, then there's too much wrong with Congress to fix anything."
Friends at the top
McDermott would move up on the Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax legislation. He is in line to become chairman of the panel's subcommittee that deals with social services, but he has his eye on the Health subcommittee.
More important, many of his congressional friends in the party's left wing would become powerful committee chairmen.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who wants to consider impeaching President Bush, would chair the Judiciary Committee. Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York would lead Ways and Means. Californian Reps. Henry Waxman and Tom Lantos would get Government Reform and International Relations, respectively.
That would give McDermott more friends in high places than many moderate colleagues.
McDermott's favorite issues aren't aimed at making your commute faster, your paycheck fatter or your child smarter. He's best-known for his sharp rhetoric against the Iraq war and his efforts to battle poverty and AIDS in Africa.
But he said he'd use a subcommittee chairmanship to advance his most pressing concern: health-care coverage for all Americans.
"It's why I went to Congress, to work on this," McDermott said. "In addition to children, we need to focus on people between ages of 50 and 65, those who increasingly lose their jobs, then have no benefits."
His secondary target is an alternative-energy policy, which he wants to create by using the tax code.
Former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, now a lobbyist with DLA Piper, speculates that McDermott and Ways and Means leaders might try to raise gasoline taxes to repress consumption of fossil fuels and reward use of alternative energy.
"McDermott will be one of the people [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi will have to rein in," Armey said. "... It's hard for McDermott to work with people because he is a militant partisan."
Pelosi, of California, would become House speaker under Democratic control.
McDermott said he's realistic about what Democrats could accomplish. His prediction: "We'll probably get minimum wage raised, and the right to negotiate Medicare prices."
Committee seats key
The state's other four House Democrats would rely on strength in numbers and seats on crucial committees to have an impact.
Smith serves on the Armed Services Committee and has become close to its ranking Democrat, Ike Skelton of Missouri.
"He is on the bubble of a subcommittee chairmanship," said Steve McBee, a lobbyist who represents several Northwest clients.
Smith, whose district includes Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base, would like to lead the Military Personnel subcommittee. He also wants oversight of the administration's use of National Guard and Reserves in Iraq.
Rep. Brian Baird of Vancouver and Rep. Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens are both on the Transportation Committee, and they could help in securing more federal money for projects in the Puget Sound and Vancouver regions.
Baird has pushed hard for the state sales-tax deductibility on federal taxes and is constantly developing new ways to resuscitate that legislation.
Larsen would have a chance to finally pass his bill that would create the Wild Sky Wilderness Area from 106,000 acres in Snohomish County.
Rep. Jay Inslee's role on the Energy and Commerce Committee and Resources Committee also could pay off. Those committees oversee oil and gas, national parks and high-tech development and regulation.
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company