Prepare to see a lot of Donna Shalala on C-SPAN.
As most House members await their committee assignments, Shalala has already been assigned to the Rules Committee, a role that cements her status as an attack dog for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and will require hours of sparring with Republicans on the House floor.
Shalala’s work began on Wednesday when she led the debate on a package that would compel the House of Representatives’ chief lawyer to fight an ongoing lawsuit by conservative-led states, including Florida, which want to end Obamacare.
“This case is a backhanded way to do what Republicans could not do legislatively, repeal the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and take away comprehensive health insurance from millions of Americans,” Shalala said on the House floor. “I represent a district that has the highest number of people, more than 100,000, enrolled in the ACA. Whether you get your health insurance from your employer, from Medicare, Medicaid or the marketplace, you have something to lose if this disastrous court case is upheld.”
After thanking Shalala for her time as former President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Republican Rep. Tom Cole began attacking the plan.
“In essence, the House will be giving Speaker Pelosi the authority to intervene in this lawsuit on behalf of the entire House of Representatives,” Cole said. “It really isn’t a surprise that the Democrats’ poorly drafted healthcare law finds itself in legal trouble.”
But since Republicans lost 40 seats and their House majority in November, Cole can do little more than debate. In contrast, Shalala and her Democratic colleagues on the committee, including Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, will have the power to shape the Democrats’ legislative priorities over the next two years.
“The Speaker asked me whether I was willing to do it,” Shalala said. “Alcee Hastings urged me to do it because he said ... I’d learn every issue as part of the Rules and [Rules chairman Jim] McGovern assured me, as did the health committee chairs, that I still would be deeply involved in healthcare. Remember we are in the majority. We have an opportunity to build a consensus, but I have an opportunity to offer amendments myself, which will likely to be listened to very carefully, particularly in areas where I have expertise.”
Shalala’s appointment to the Rules Committee was made earlier than most of her colleagues, a signal that the committee’s work is essential to the Democrats’ early agenda as other committees are still gearing up after eight years of Republican control.
And though most of the debate on the House floor comes in the form of pre-written speeches by various members, Shalala has more responsibility to debate Republican arguments in real-time.
“I love debating,” Shalala said. “Remember I teach, so I’m used to explaining things. You have to obviously respond to the other side and you manage the speakers on the subject, and if there’s additional time, then you actually debate.”
Though other committees will contain a slim majority of Democrats after they won 54 percent of seats in the 2018 elections, nine of the 13 Rules Committee members are Democrats to ensure that Pelosi and Democratic leadership won’t be blindsided if one or two Democrats go rogue. Republicans operate the committee in a similar fashion when they’re in power, though Shalala has been assured that the committee’s habit of meeting in the middle of the night during big-time debates won’t happen under Democratic leadership.
“We have somebody with incredible expertise ... who will be a fierce defender of the ACA and a fierce advocate for increasing healthcare protections for everybody,” McGovern said. “There’s no learning curve. She’s ready to hit the ground running, as evidenced by the fact that she’s ready to handle this rule.”
Shalala’s public-facing role with plenty of camera time will give Republicans lots of fodder if they decide to mount a 2020 challenge to her in a district that was held by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for 29 years. But President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Miami, along with a presidential election-year electorate, could mean that the biggest threat to Shalala’s reelection chances is a left-leaning primary challenger. She won the 2018 primary by single digits. In that case, the partisan attack-dog work on the Rules Committee could help her politically.
Shalala’s assignment isn’t the only leadership change among South Florida lawmakers. Broward Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch will lead the House Ethics Committee, a largely behind-the-scenes role for a committee that conducts investigations within Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio was chosen to lead the Senate Small Business Committee on Wednesday, a body that oversees the Small Business Administration.
But Shalala’s work will be part of the Democrats’ messaging strategy for pushing partisan bills ahead of the 2020 election. The Rules package Shalala debated with the Obamacare provision in it passed with just three Republican votes out of a possible 199. Every Democrat who showed up voted for it.
After the debate ended, Cole walked across the aisle to congratulate Shalala for debating her first bill. Then, first year Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican Shalala met during new member orientation and she referred to as “her buddy,” stepped between the pair.
“She’ll smile as she’s cutting your throat,” Burchett said.