Who Will Democrats Pick to Neutralize Issa?

Here's a cold, hard fact Democrats will have to confront in the next Congress: Republicans have subpoena power.

And with twice the staff and funding for research and investigations, the newly Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee could become something of a drag for the Obama administration. There's been speculation that he will take up investigations on climate-gate, on rumored administration attempts to push Democratic candidates out of Senate races, and on other stuff that the administration probably doesn't want to supply documents, or personal testimony, in response to Issa's subpoenas.

It's questionable how much of that Issa will really take up, and he's signaled that he won't carry out his committee duties in the spirit of a witch hunter. But the possibilities loom, and people at least are talking about them, at least.

In light of such concerns, Democrats must decide whether to re-elect the current chairman of the committee, Brooklyn's Ed Towns, or to replace him with someone else. The full Democratic caucus (its 2011 incarnation, that is) will vote after Thanksgiving on who gets the job.

An open race for the spot has unfolded.

Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, who has chaired the committee's Domestic Policy Subcommittee in the past two Congresses, is running against Towns. Yesterday he circulated a letter to fellow House Democrats asking them to support him in his bid and warning that Issa "has already made wild and unsubstantiated charges which threaten to turn the principal oversight committee of the House into a witch hunt."

Kucinich is a liberal firebrand, having mounted two presidential bids with little chance of winning, and he's stuck out among Democrats like a sore thumb. Against the wishes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he forced votes on the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Liberal talk show host Ed Schultz has already said nice things about him as he mounts this bid to serve as Issa's Democratic counterweight.

Some Democrats, according to congressional sources, are concerned that Towns can't get the job done, but it's tough to get a good explanation of his supposed deficiencies. He's not a loud or showy guy, and he's balanced the multiracial voting blocs of his Brooklyn constituency for 14 terms. Consequently, he doesn't have a larger-than-life identity.

Towns has recently pledged to fight back with toughness against any potentially frivolous Issa probes. Last week he told the New York Daily News: "I come out of Brooklyn politics--I know how to fight. ... I will do what I have to do. ... I'll give him a little Bed-Stuy, a little Brownsville." By multiple accounts, Towns and Issa enjoy a good relationship at present.

"Any attempt to use this Committee as a political weapon to tear down this Administration is intolerable and I will use every tool at my disposal to ensure this does not occur," Towns wrote in a letter to Democratic colleagues last week, seeking their support for the position.

Towns has locked up the support of the Congressional Black Caucus and the New York congressional delegation, according to his spokeswoman, including the number-two Democrat on the committee, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

Another possible contender, who isn't running out in the open: Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a fellow Congressional Black Caucus member. Cummings recently told TalkingPointsMemo that, if Towns decided to step aside, "I'd go for it in a second."

Kucinich has his benefits and his drawbacks. He's already going after Issa with aggression: In his dear-colleague letter, Kucinich boasts that he's sent Issa a letter demanding that the California Republican either produce documents to support his claim that the stimulus is akin to "walking around money" or recant his statement. The Ohio liberal can certainly put on a show. He's good with the heated rhetoric, and he knows how to work a stage.

At the same time, he's a wildcard. He has openly criticized the Obama administration before, particularly on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He threatened to vote "no" on health care reform before eventually voting "yes." After Obama announced the end of U.S. "combat operations" in Iraq, Kucinich criticized the advertised drawdown as the "privatization of war."

In other words, Kucinich is by no means an administration shill, and, at times, he's placed himself at odds with President Obama.

He's also mounting this bid at a time of political uncertainty: As Newsweek has pointed out, Kucinich could lose his seat due to post-Census redistricting. Republicans control the Ohio House, Senate, and governor's mansion, and it's possible Northern Ohio will lose a Democratic district.

It's difficult to tell who will win, or if Towns will realize he doesn't have the votes, step aside, and allow Cummings to swoop in. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not taken sides in this race; nor has she taken sides in other committee races, save Chris Van Hollen's election as top Democrat on the Budget committee, the only committee vote that was held on the same day as caucus leadership votes.

The two have very different styles, and the Democratic caucus will have to decide whether the hard-charging Kucinich is worth the risk, or whether the quieter, relationship-building style of Towns is the best antidote to witch-hunt fears.