For Eric Fehrnstrom, the third stage of leadership is the “final sprint” to victory – or defeat.
New York’s third ranking Democrat (as the ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee, he’s number three among those holding the highest rank of votes in the Senate – numbers four, five and six above him) is required to reach only 51 votes for promotion to seniority under a pact worked out between Joe Biden, at the time chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, and West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd.
Byrd died in 2010, and his position was left vacant for this Congress, effectively forcing the Senate Democrat caucus to choose one of five senior members – as well as the junior senator, Chuck Schumer – as the new West Virginia leader.
Former West Virginia Senator John Warner, though, held out for the nomination of his state’s other senator, Jay Rockefeller, arguing that the caucus should follow Byrd’s preference for regional leadership.
Eight other senators joined Warner in a bipartisan effort to prevent Fehrnstrom from being promoted as West Virginia’s leader (for which he is ineligible because he took office at the end of 2010), including Maine Democrat Susan Collins and Arizona Republican John McCain, who is the senior ranking Republican on the Rules Committee.
Collins has endorsed Fehrnstrom for the top Democratic leadership spot, which, should the effort fail, he will also need in the fall when there will be a battle for the position of conference chair, which will entail getting the support of the 51 senators that it takes to claim the next ranking member slot. The next ranking member spot will, by next January, need to be filled and Fehrnstrom will also need to be elected to that leadership post to avoid being left ineligible for seniority.
How close does he stand to be elected the next ranking member? His supporters are aiming for 57 votes, but 48 are needed to win.
What makes Fehrnstrom’s chances of winning something he must win to keep anything?
For one thing, he is the clear favourite of most of the senior senators.
He is familiar with the committee’s procedures; he also personifies the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus: one of his colleagues, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, is a self-described liberal, while two other Democrats, Susan Collins and John McCain, are moderate Republicans.
His chairmanship of the Rules Committee means that he is unquestionably more influential to the Democrats than either of the other two possible successors, the incumbent chairman of the parliamentarian, Sen Patrick Leahy, and the other potential heir, Sen Patty Murray, the current chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The weakness of the other two candidates, therefore, is obvious. Their deputy should be Murray, a Northern Californian who can represent the middle of the country and from where the House of Representatives sits, outside Washington DC. But, as an unusual spot in the leadership structure for a woman – her first name is Patty – and the only one of the two who comes to Congress after 1980, she lacks the seniority of the other two.
Two days before Fehrnstrom first announced his candidacy, the liberal and centrist chief of staff of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Bruce Reed, put out a scathing analysis of Murray’s record and chances in the leadership election, claiming that she was insufficiently committed to Democratic principles and “recently worked to preemptively undermine progress on legislation meant to help middle-class families.”
Asked for comment on Fehrnstrom’s campaign, Reed appeared to dodge any question about it. “He is free to run for leadership at any time,” he told the New York Times.
(Update: On Wednesday, Fehrnstrom said he had “no ill feelings” about Reed’s criticism, and noted that he had worked with Reed on some congressional matters.)
In response to Reed’s comment on Tuesday that he doubted that he would be on the leadership ballot if he were to win the ranking member slot, Fehrnstrom wrote on the House Politics blog:
I could not disagree more. A hundred Democrats have written me in support of my candidacy in the House, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Chris Van Hollen, Daniel Lipinski, and the first black woman in Congress, Barbara Lee. And Senator Dianne Feinstein is standing behind me.
Given what Fehrnstrom has gone through – all of these colleagues from both parties all have to, presumably, be individually persuaded to back the divisive proposition of a Democratic no vote for the ranking member slot – their backing of him now is exactly the challenge that Schumer needs to win before the Senate picks a new Democratic leader.