Cummings decides not to fight for House panel seat Democrat allows post to go to independent

February 13, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Responding to concerns from fellow Democrats that he was bucking party leaders, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore decided yesterday not to press his claim to a top position on a House subcommittee.

Cummings' decision ended an awkward power struggle in which the freshman congressman seemed poised to fight Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont -- the only independent in Congress -- for the top Democratic post on a House subcommittee. The subcommittee, part of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, handles economic policy, regulatory reform, the National Park Service and management of federal lands.

In a letter last fall, senior Democrats, including the party's leader in the House, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, pledged to back Sanders' claim to a top subcommittee post. That pledge was based on Sanders' consistent support for the Democratic agenda over the years.

A party's top position on a subcommittee is coveted because it is a first step toward the leadership spot on the full committee. Moreover, if Democrats regain control of the House, the party's top subcommittee member would likely become chairman and would have influence over the panel's agenda.

Cummings, who came to Congress 10 months ago, argued that the job was rightfully his because the party's rules do not provide for awarding such posts to members who are not Democrats.

In the past week, Cummings received many calls from Democrats supporting his position, said Anthony W. McCarthy, Cummings' communications director. But as many as 10 party members also called to disagree, he said.

"He had a lot of concerns over the effects this was having on the party," the spokesman said.

Cummings did not quite come away empty-handed. Instead of gaining the senior position that he had argued was rightfully his, he was given less influential seats on two other subcommittees -- those covering civil service and national security -- that he said would be more valuable to his constituents in Maryland's 7th District.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for me to fight for the large population of federal employees and federal retirees in my district," Cummings said in a statement.

"I have long championed a pro-active and result-oriented national policy to deal with our 'war on drugs,' and my membership on the national security subcommittee affords me the opportunity to be directly involved in shaping that strategy."

Sanders, who has just started his fourth term in the House, said yesterday that he was pleased that Democratic leaders had stuck by their pledge to him.

"As the only independent in Congress, the issue of my seniority is one that has been debated strenuously in Congress from the day I arrived in 1991," Sanders said in a statement. "I am grateful that the Democratic leadership has honored the agreement that it made with me, despite opposition from some Democrats."

In a letter to Cummings yesterday, Gephardt said he would also give the congressman from Baltimore a seat on the Democratic Policy Committee, which establishes rules for the party's 207-member caucus. The committee has about a dozen members.

"I am writing to express my appreciation for all that you have done to make the House Democratic Caucus an effective team," Gephardt wrote.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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