Pennsylvania Dems feud over seat

April 13, 2010

A vicious internal brawl over the late Rep. John Murtha’s Appropriations seat has thrown a pair of politically vulnerable Pennsylvania Democrats into open warfare and threatens to leave each man weaker in the eyes of voters.

And they weren’t even running against each other for the seat.

Second-term Rep. Chris Carney is accusing 25-year veteran Paul Kanjorski, who represents a neighboring northeastern Pennsylvania district, of stabbing him in the back by voting for Rep. Patrick Murphy when the Pennsylvania delegation used secret ballots to recommend a Murtha successor to the Democratic Steering Committee, which hands out committee assignments.

There’s no guarantee that the Pennsylvanians’ choice will get the seat, but the vote triggered a maelstrom within and outside the delegation. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — at least by Kanjorski’s implication — has been thrown into the fight, and several sources say Carney was the victim of a whisper campaign suggesting that his opposition to abortion rights would keep him from winning the nomination of the Steering Committee, which is dominated by Pelosi allies.

Because of Pelosi’s travel and meeting schedules, her aides were not able to shed light Monday on whether or to what extent she was actually involved in the battle between Carney and Murphy.

But during Congress’s spring recess, Kanjorski told the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice that it would have been “fruitless” for the Pennsylvania delegation to send to the Steering Committee a pick that “couldn’t have gotten [its] support [and] wouldn’t be on [the] Appropriations [Committee].” And several Democratic sources say Kanjorski could have been so confident of how the Steering Committee would act only if he knew Pelosi’s thinking — or believed he did — given her singular influence over the committee’s decisions.

To the extent that they are communicating with each other — in vitriolic terms to local reporters — it’s clear Carney believes Kanjorski double-crossed him and did so at the expense of their shared region.

Kanjorski’s camp says it’s impossible for anyone to know how he voted on a secret ballot. But the veteran Democrat, who became dean of the delegation when Murtha died, hasn’t denied voting against Carney and also strongly suggested to a local reporter that Pelosi had encouraged him to back Murphy.

Carney’s calling him out in the local press.

“I would really like to understand Mr. Kanjorski’s vote,” he told the (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader this weekend.

Whatever the case, Kanjorski, who faces both a primary and a general election fight, and Carney, who represents a district carried by Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, may be inflicting serious damage on each other.

Carney’s clout was thrown into question by his loss within the state delegation, and he has responded by accusing Kanjorski of blocking their shared region from winning a seat on the Appropriations Committee.
That hasn’t been lost on Kanjorski’s primary foe, Corey O’Brien, who told the Times Leader that it would be devastating to the region if Kanjorski’s vote cost the region a seat at the table.

Pennsylvania Democrats say the situation is regrettable.

“It’s not good for anyone,” said the chief of staff to another member of the Pennsylvania delegation.
That aide said Kanjorski could have headed off the problem by openly backing Murphy, which might have prevented a tough vote in which other lawmakers had to pick between their same-state colleagues.
“The person to blame for this … is Kanjorski,” the aide said. “He forced them to take a vote.”

“It was a secret ballot,” countered Kanjorski spokeswoman Abbie McDonough. “No one would have known how the congressman voted.”

Carney spokesman Josh Drobnyk declined to comment to POLITICO.

The spat appears to have taken a serious toll on the relationship between the two Pennsylvania Democrats.
“I don’t know if it gets much worse than it already has been between the two of them,” said the chief of staff to another member.

The Steering Committee is expected to meet soon, perhaps this week or next, to decide whether Murphy or one of the other lawmakers vying for the seat will get it. Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa is often mentioned as a possible candidate for the seat.

But several Democratic sources say interest in Appropriations seats appears to have waned a bit — perhaps partially in response to a crackdown on earmarking that makes it harder for lawmakers to give federal funds to individual companies in their districts.

Aides to Democrats on the Steering Committee say they aren’t getting the volume of letters they typically receive when an opening arises on the spending panel.

Appropriators also have to decide who will get Murtha’s slot on the well-funded Defense Appropriations Subcommittee — a process that could see a member with more seniority giving up his or her current assignments to get a hand on the Pentagon’s purse strings. That decision will be made after the Steering Committee recommends, and the full Democratic Caucus approves, a member to take Murtha’s seat on the full committee.
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