But Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has proven to be a more formidable opponent than previously thought, according to aides and lawmakers watching the race. The Florida Democrat has a savvy team behind her, pitching new policy ideas against DeLauro’s more senior standing within the Democratic caucus. Kaptur is seen as something of a long-shot, even though she is actually the most senior Democrat on the panel.
“I have to put Rosa as the favorite,“ said one House Democrat, who asked to remain anonymous in order to talk candidly about the race. “Most people think that she’s Nancy’s preference.”
“Debbie is probably the most aggressive of the three, but to me, she has the hardest lift to jump that far in seniority,” the lawmaker added. “I don’t see her having the same natural base of support that Rosa does.”
Wasserman Schultz is expected to draw support from freshman members — who are eager to see more generational diversity in the leadership ranks — in addition to some of the most vulnerable “frontline” members. The Florida Democrat, who once served as DNC chair until she was ousted during the 2016 campaign, has raised or contributed nearly $816,000 this cycle to frontline members and candidates in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, according to her campaign.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, is one senior member who’s backing Wasserman Schultz’s bid.
“I think that Debbie has demonstrated the leadership experience and has the policy and political acumen to be an incredible chair,” Murphy said. “Her outreach is making a difference.”
Wasserman Schultz said in an interview that she’s running to “bring the appropriations process into the 21st century.” She said she wants to ensure that every member understands how the process works and in turn, that everyone has a chance to leave their mark on annual spending bills.
Earlier this month, she unveiled a proposal to create an advisory panel focused on equity, justice and diversity in the appropriations process. The plan won praise from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), which was privately seen as a boon for her candidacy and a potential signal of his support for her bid.
“This plan presents an opportunity to begin to repair faults that have perpetuated disparities within this country for far too long,” Clyburn said in a statement earlier this month. Wasserman Schultz’s proposal would draw on a funding plan that Clyburn previously proposed to combat poverty.
Many also saw the plan’s release as strategic, coming on the same day that House appropriators marked up their fiscal 2021 funding bill for the departments of Labor, HHS and Education — the measure helmed by DeLauro.
“In the short time since I’ve released it, I’ve had a lot of members move in my direction as a result,” Wasserman Schultz said.
When asked about the more senior standing of her two opponents, the Florida Democrat noted that all three candidates have spent the same amount of leading appropriations subcommittees.
Wasserman Schultz chairs the subcommittee that funds military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs. DeLauro sits atop the powerful Labor-HHS-Education panel, which divvies up the largest chunk of federal discretionary spending, aside from the Defense subcommittee. Kaptur chairs the Energy-Water subcommittee, which oversees a smaller slice of funding than the other two panels.
“Seniority in our rules is a factor, but not the determining factor in the choices that members make,” Wasserman Schultz said.
DeLauro — one of the longest-serving appropriators and a champion of the public health community — is known as a leader on a number of issues, including women’s health, trade, agriculture and nutrition.
In her own interview, DeLauro played up her decades as an appropriator and legislator, in addition to her track record of working across the aisle with senior GOP appropriators like Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and getting legislation signed into law. Fellow Connecticut Democrat Rep. John Larson recently sent a letter to the caucus stumping on her behalf, noting that the whip team for her bid is over 35 members strong.
“People know what my track record is,” DeLauro said. “They know who I am. They know what I am about. They know that I’m open to ideas. They know that I will listen. They know that I respect their views and that I will provide them with the tools that they need to be able to do their jobs.”
In announcing her candidacy last year, DeLauro touted her relationships with Lowey and Pelosi, noting the trio used to be called “the ‘DeLoSi’s’ — a band of women who fought for women’s health at a time when women’s issues were on the fringe of our political discourse.”
But when asked about the importance of those relationships, DeLauro downplayed the ties, which could still play a key role in determining the next chair.
“I have long-standing and personal relationships with a lot of people, a lot of members,” she said. “People take you for who you are, what you’ve done and how you work individually with them.”
Kaptur has been less publicly aggressive about her bid for the gavel, though she can boast that she’s the most senior appropriator on the committee and the longest-serving woman in Congress. She was previously passed over for the position in 2012, when she lost to Lowey.
The Ohio Democrat is also seen as having a more conservative disposition, hailing from the industrial Midwest, that’s somewhat out of step with more progressive swaths of the Democratic caucus.
Kaptur said in an interview that she feels “an obligation” to run, not just because of her decades of experience as an appropriator, but because the Midwest is largely left out of the leadership ranks.
“I respect seniority. It’s the only fair way in a place that has so many other crosscurrents happening,” with members either coming from “large states with a lot of votes,” or wielding “money and influence,” she said.
“The region that I represent, the industrial Midwest and the Great Lakes region, has trouble gaining footing here,” she said. “And what’s interesting is that, politically, it’s the region that Democrats have to fight harder for now.”
It’s still early for members to publicly declare their allegiance in the race. DeLauro, Wasserman Schultz and Kaptur must ultimately seek the support of the Steering and Policy panel that influences leadership selections when the 116th Congress comes to a close next year.
In a closed-door vote, that group will choose who to recommend as the spending committee’s top Democrat. But lawmakers can still request a vote from the full caucus, even if the Steering and Policy panel endorses another member.
“It’s a good problem to have three immensely smart and qualified women competing for that spot,” said Matt Dennis, a senior vice president of the lobbying firm CRD Associates and a former spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Democrats.
“What’s important in that role is the ability to listen to and learn from colleagues, help them get results, and lead on tough issues, and each of them has shown they can do that,” he said.