By Andrew Restuccia
Reps. Peter DeFazio and Raul Grijalva are making their final pitches to fellow Democrats in the battle to succeed Sen.-elect Ed Markey as the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee.
The campaign has gotten downright nasty in recent weeks, with Grijalva and DeFazio trading barbs in a series of letters to their Democratic colleagues.
In interviews with POLITICO ahead of a vote expected in the coming days, DeFazio and Grijalva each made the case that he is the best man for the job. DeFazio pointed to his decades of experience and seniority, while Grijalva, the underdog in the race, described himself as a "bridge builder" who can bring new constituencies to the natural resources debate.
DeFazio noted that he is the most senior Democrat on the panel after Markey, who won his Senate bid last month.
"I bring 26½ years of experience in the natural resources battles with the Republicans to the job," said DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat.
More than 40 Democrats have said they support his ranking member bid, including the four Democrats next-highest in seniority on the committee.
In a June 11 letter to his colleagues, DeFazio argued that it would be "unprecedented" for Grijalva, who is the seventh-most senior Democrat on the committee, including Markey, to ascend to the ranking member spot.
"I understand that seniority is not everything in selecting a new ranking member," he said. "In a few cases, our caucus has chosen a less senior member to lead a committee, but in those few cases the elevated committee member was only one or two slots less in seniority. Rep. Grijalva is seeking to jump over five members with more seniority -- all of whom support me. That is unprecedented."
DeFazio recently got something of a tryout for the ranking member position when he led Democrats on the House floor in their opposition to two GOP-backed offshore drilling bills.
"It's kind of a "Groundhog Day' for Congress," DeFazio said on the floor, bashing Republicans' bill to expand offshore drilling, which he noted had already been the subject of House legislation.
At one point during the debate, DeFazio lambasted Republicans for supporting a GOP-backed amendment related to Iranian oil sanctions after they had rejected similar language that Democrats had sought to attach to a previous bill.
"That's the kind of thing that I will bring to those kind of debates, turn them inside out a little bit and expose the hypocrisy for what it is," DeFazio said in the interview.
Grijalva made the case that his fellow Democrats should look beyond seniority.
"The thing I'm running against is not so much the person I chose to challenge, Mr. DeFazio, but it is the concept of seniority. That trumps everything else in people's minds," Grijalva said.
He said there have been several instances when lower-ranking lawmakers won the ranking member position over more senior lawmakers.
Instead, he said, his colleagues should consider diversity and how well the candidate promoted Democrats' agenda. Grijalva said he would reach out to "new constituencies that are quickly becoming the face of America," including Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and young people.
Grijalva said he has talked to 60 Democrats individually and intends to meet with more in the coming days. He has won the support of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, an organization made up of more than 30 national Latino groups, as well as the California delegation of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
And the Arizona Democrat has sought to draw a distinction between his voting record and DeFazio's.
If the candidates are judged on their ability to "give voice and face to an agenda and a party's position on issues, then I think I win that argument," Grijalva said, noting that he has backed the Democratic leadership on most major bills.
In a June 19 letter to some of his Democratic colleagues, Grijalva bashed DeFazio for his 2009 vote in favor of a measure allowing people to carry guns in national parks.
"The next ranking member will be the face of the Democratic Caucus on public lands management, Native American issues and a host of other areas. I believe we should have someone who understands the importance of curtailing gun violence in that position," Grijalva wrote.
DeFazio shot back in a letter later that day that the gun measure "had no impact in most states, it only impacted states that already allowed individuals to carry concealed handguns on other public lands."
"The true mark of a leader is not one who divides but one who unites," DeFazio wrote. "We all have constituencies to represent and values to balance with that representation. I won't demand that members adhere to all my political leanings. I believe they should stand for core democratic values and represent their districts."
Grijalva acknowledged that his bid for the ranking member spot faces an uphill battle.
The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is expected to meet in coming days to make a recommendation to the Democratic Caucus.
Grijalva said he anticipates that it will be "difficult" to prevail in the Steering and Policy Committee. He believes he has a better shot with a vote in the full Democratic Caucus, which has junior members who may be more sympathetic to his criticism of the seniority system.
But a caucuswide vote isn't guaranteed. A Democratic aide explained that in order to secure a caucus vote, the loser needs at least 14 votes in the Steering and Policy Committee or 50 signatures.
"We want to put it to the whole caucus where we think we have at least a chance to be heard and to take our challenge seriously," Grijalva said.