Just before the Steering Committee moved to vote on the Energy and Commerce slots, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team presented a slate of their preferred candidates for four out of the five seats.
But notably, top Democrats did not choose a nominee for the final seat, which is essentially reserved for a New York member — forcing Rice and Ocasio-Cortez into a head-to-head matchup.
The panel launched into an intense round of speeches on each candidate, with several Democrats speaking up to lobby against Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman member and social media star who is seen as a political threat by many of the caucus’s moderates for her far-left policies. On the video call, several Democrats called out Ocasio-Cortez’s efforts to help liberal challengers take out their own incumbents, as well as her refusal to pay party campaign dues.
“I’m taking into account who works against other members in primaries and who doesn’t,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said on the call, according to multiple sources. Cuellar successfully fended off a primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, who Ocasio-Cortez supported.
Most senior Democrats have been reluctant from the start to wade into the contest between the two firebrand New Yorkers. That includes members of the New York delegation, who signed letters of support for both of them, rather than risk ruffling feathers by endorsing one candidate.
Ocasio-Cortez did secure some support from senior Democrats, including Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Judiciary Committee chair who serves as the dean of the state’s delegation and signed her letter of support but not Rice’s. (That in itself was a point of contention between the two contenders, with Ocasio-Cortez citing Nadler’s signature to argue that she alone had the support from the delegation.)
Rice was ultimately among five Democrats to win a hard-fought slot on the exclusive committee, alongside Reps. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.).
Ten Democrats had been initially vying for spots on the panel, though several withdrew their names in the final minutes, just before the Steering Committee announced Pelosi’s slate. Democrats had expected to fill just two or three seats, though the committee was ultimately expanded to add five amid intense interest from the caucus.
Not everyone was happy with their leadership’s decision to put only the New York seat up for a head-to-head vote. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) argued that the Steering Committee should vote on each individual seat, saying she wouldn’t vote on a “partial slate.”
Pelosi, though, stepped in and convinced the panel to adopt the leadership picks, while taking a separate vote on the seat Rice and Ocasio-Cortez sought.
The jockeying between the two New Yorkers has been the most closely watched contest within the Democratic caucus in recent weeks, carrying big implications for both policy and power in the next Congress.
Rice, who had been expected to get the seat, attempted to block Pelosi from leading House Democrats in the 116th Congress and is now seen as a crucial vote for the speaker this time around since Democrats have a slimmer majority. It’s a big turnaround for the Long Island Democrat and former prosecutor: after she spoke out against Pelosi’s speakership, Rice was denied a seat on her preferred committee — Judiciary — just two years ago.
But Ocasio-Cortez also made a hard push, and was the first member to ask the New York delegation for its backing. Multiple New Yorkers, including Rep.-elect Mondaire Jones, spoke up in her favor during the Steering meeting.
Progressives both inside and outside of the Capitol said it would be critical to have Ocasio-Cortez on the Energy and Commerce Committee to help influence critical policies in the early days of the Biden administration.
But some senior Democrats, including on the Energy and Commerce panel, had privately voiced concerns about Ocasio-Cortez landing the seat. Some feared that the firebrand Democrat, who backs progressive priorities like the “Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All,” could cause issues as Congress attempts to draft bipartisan health and climate policies next year.
The New York delegation wasn’t the only one with issues: The Texas delegation, too, ultimately decided to back two members rather than choose one. Both Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher were vying for a spot, and Fletcher was later picked as part of Pelosi’s slate.