DeFazio Becomes Top Democrat on House Natural Resources Committee

Billy House

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon is the new top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, fending off a challenge from a less-senior colleague who framed the race in terms of Hispanic inclusiveness within the party's top House committee posts.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said DeFazio, 66, of his new role as ranking member, after emerging from a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting. His opponent, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, had just announced at the meeting that he was withdrawing prior to an expected caucus-wide vote.

The two men had met privately together on Wednesday evening, but Grijalva, 65, said he did not make his final decision to drop out until Thursday morning. He said his whip count showed he had the support of about 70 of the 200 members of the caucus.

The scramble between the two lawmakers to garner the backing of colleagues played out over recent weeks through private calls and meetings with colleagues and had grown unusually feisty—and even personal. But neither man said they will harbor any lasting hard feelings.

"We're a very big tent. We love to duke it out sometimes. But in the end, we come back together and we're unified.... Raul was a class act today," DeFazio said.

At stake was the top Democratic seat on a committee that considers legislation ranging from energy production and mineral lands to the National Park system, monuments, Native Americans, fisheries, and wildlife. The post opened up with former Rep. Edward Markey's victory in the special election in Massachusetts for a U.S. Senate seat. With the top Democratic seat also comes more power, including more staff and more attention from campaign donors.

DeFazio throughout his bid had emphasized to fellow House Democrats that he is next in line behind Markey based on his 26 years on the panel. By contrast, Grijalva's 10 years means he would have been leap-frogging not just DeFazio, but four other more-senior Democrats, to be committee ranking member.

But Grijalva, a Mexican-American, explained his decision to challenge DeFazio had been fueled in large part by the urgings of outside groups, including Latino organizations, some of which said they wanted to see more Hispanic lawmakers holding chairmanships or ranking positions on congressional committees. Among House Democrats, Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York is the ranking member on the House Small Business Committee, and Linda Sanchez of California is the ranking member on the House Ethics Committee.

In the end, however, Grijalva said that by Thursday morning he faced the inevitability of DeFazio "prevailing." As a result, he decided to tell his colleagues before an actual vote that he was withdrawing.

"But I also told them [fellow Democrats] that all the people that were calling their offices were not so much doing it for me, as they were doing it for the things they believed in," said Grijalva, referring to a push for more Hispanic inclusiveness in top posts. "If the party wants to get stronger—realize that they want in."

In a formal letter announcing his decision to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Grijalva wrote, "I withdraw fully aware of the fights to come in 2014 and beyond. I believe we must remain an inclusive and unified Caucus to succeed in those fights."

DeFazio said that he now plans to get down "to brass tacks," and he's ready to hire staff (some of whom he said left with Markey), get subcommittee chairs together, and "plan an agenda." For instance, he said there are as many as 11 bills dealing with public lands ready for action.

Pelosi had praise for both men after the caucus meeting.

She said DeFazio will bring commitment and leadership as the Natural Resources ranking member "to the task of creating clean-energy jobs, tapping renewable sources of energy, and preserving our natural resources." And she said Grijalva will continue his "outstanding work" as a progressive leader and a member of the committee.