But several House Democrats are quietly signaling they’re hoping to avoid a messy public grab for the chairmanship that would divert attention away from their impeachment probe and spotlight long-festering fissures within the caucus. And that could put Maloney in prime position to assume the gavel, according to lawmakers and aides.
“Obviously, no one is going to be able to fill the shoes of Elijah Cummings,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is in his second term on the panel, said Monday, without expressing support for a specific member. “I think what’s important in the position is that they’re also going to be able to work closely with [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff and with the speaker.”
Democrats must hold an election for the chairmanship within 30 days of the vacancy, according to the caucus rules. But no public announcements on timing are expected until after Cummings’ funeral services at the end of this week.
The opening on the Oversight panel puts Democrats in a difficult position: multiple lawmakers and aides acknowledge that the committee lacks a deep bench of battle-hardened lawmakers ready to take on Trump.
But most also realize that a caucus-wide contest could expose ugly divisions across generational and racial lines — drowning out the Democratic Party’s message on impeachment in what could be the final weeks of their inquiry.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have privately said they are willing to accept Maloney, even if it means losing one of their five chairmanships. But if anyone else wins the post — jumping over two of their own members — “all hell’s gonna break loose,” one aide said.
Maloney, who has served on the panel since she came to Congress in 1993, is viewed as the choice of least resistance and defacto frontrunner. And the New York Democrat has already secured commitments of support from the next two most senior members on the panel, Norton and Clay. Both have agreed not to challenge her, according to two people familiar with Maloney’s chairmanship bid.
Maloney was seen working the floor on Monday evening, talking to several members and at one point gave Clay a big hug.
The backing of Norton and Clay could signal broader support for Maloney from the CBC, a powerful voting bloc of 53 members who generally support seniority above all else when picking committee chairmen.
But for other Democrats who have long waited on the sidelines due to the caucus’ deference to seniority, a bid for the high-profile chairmanship may be hard to pass up. The panel’s next chairman would not only have sprawling jurisdiction to investigate nearly every aspect of Trump’s administration and businesses, but would be instantly thrust into the spotlight of Democrats’ impeachment push.
And some lawmakers and aides have questioned whether Maloney — who has never before served in such a high-profile leadership post — is prepared to become one of the party’s leading voices on impeachment. Maloney was passed over for the job in 2010 after Democrats tapped Cummings, a less senior member, as their counterweight to bombastic Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Maloney is best known for her years of advocacy on the 9/11 victims fund, for which she famously donned a New York firefighter’s jacket in the Capitol until she could secure permanent funding. But she has little national exposure on other oversight issues, though her allies point out that she’s long been a fighter for progressive policies, particularly women’s rights, consumer protection and gun control.
Democrats have also privately expressed concerns about how Maloney’s impending primary will factor into the chairmanship election. The New York Democrat is facing several opponents, including a rematch against Suraj Patel, a Democratic activist who garnered 40 percent of the vote in the 2018 primary.
The high-profile chairmanship could give Maloney a significant advantage over her primary challengers. But if she’s passed over for the job for the second time, that could offer Patel and any other potential opponents an opening to attack her as an ineffective representative, Democrats said.
The possibility of Maloney taking the helm has led to some other members quietly floating other candidates, including Connolly. A fixture on cable news and a fierce critic of Trump, Connolly would bring an attack dog aspect to Democrats’ impeachment messaging that many lawmakers say is needed.
Connolly, who leads a subcommittee on the panel, declined to discuss the race. “It can wait until after we pay proper respect to my dear friend, Elijah Cummings,” he said in an interview.
Clay and a Maloney spokesperson declined to comment on the potential chairmanship race. Speier’s office did not return a request for comment. A source close to Jeffries, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said he has “zero” interest in the Oversight gavel.
Multiple CBC lawmakers, granted anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, said they expected Norton not to run even if Maloney bowed out. If that were the case, they would support Clay, a senior member of the CBC, for the chairmanship. Some CBC members discussed the issue after an impromptu caucus gathering to honor Cummings late Thursday, according to multiple people.
Others have argued that the Democratic caucus will lean on the widely-trusted Schiff to lead the impeachment push, regardless of who takes control of the Oversight panel. Schiff has been Democrats’ primary messenger on their investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political gain since launching the impeachment inquiry a month ago.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter because Pelosi has already made Schiff the captain of the ship,” one Democratic aide said.
John Bresnahan, Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.