WASHINGTON – House Democrats -- who have pushed for votes on women’s rights issues like paid family leave -- are causing a stir after deciding to not allow a pregnant member to cast her ballot by proxy in leadership votes. Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who lost both her legs in the service, had requested an exception to caucus rules in order to vote in the closed-door proceedings. She said her physician has advised her not to travel.
According to reports detailing what happened in the closed-door caucus meeting, Duckworth, whose baby is due in December, sent a letter asking her fellow Democrats to make an exception to the rule, which allows members to vote on party business only if they are in the room. Those in the meeting expressed sympathy for Duckworth -- but then another member asked for an exception to attend a funeral.
At that point, in order to avoid creating expectations of special treatment -- and inevitable resentment -- the group decided not to let anyone vote by proxy, according to a Democratic aide who was in the room. Both male and female members agreed, said the source.
“We just don’t allow it and neither do House Republicans for the same slippery slope arguments,” the aide said.
A spokeswoman for Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who opposed Duckworth’s request and heads up the committee that will be running the leadership votes, told National Journal there are many requests for waivers.
“Congresswoman DeLauro does not want to set a precedent. There are many meritorious situations where the argument could be made for a waiver, including Congresswoman Duckworth's. The question is, how do you choose?” her spokeswoman Sara Lonardo told National Journal.
But critics quickly focused on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who just yesterday bemoaned unfair treatment during her time in leadership because she’s a woman. Pelosi, who is the leader of the caucus, reportedly opposed Duckworth’s request for a waiver.
The denial of Rep. Duckworth's request was red meat for conservative pundits. “War on Women?” the headline of the Washington Times asked.
Duckworth hadn’t asked to vote for any bills using a proxy: That would violate federal law. What she was asking to participate in are the votes that parties take at the beginning of each session to decide their leadership and who will be the party's top member of each committee. There are no contested races for leadership; Pelosi is expected to remain the minority leader.
But there's a heated battle to decide the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Since Republicans control the House, whoever is chosen will represent the minority on the committee, a position of little power. Pelosi is backing Rep. Anna Eshoo, of California, for the seat. The other candidate for the spot is New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone.
Pallone's supporters include Illinois Democrat Rep. Jan Schakowsky -- who pushed hard for Duckworth to be allowed to vote by proxy. Duckworth, too, was expected to back Pallone.
Is that why Pelosi didn't want to make an exception for Rep. Duckworth? Spokesman Drew Hammill says no, the committee race had nothing to do with it.
That's unknowable. But the very fact of the question explains why the battle for a relatively insignificant position is turning out to be the most interesting committee battle in Congress.