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April 16, 2014

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GOVERNMENT:

Already, Titus faces difficult first vote

She must cast ballot for chairman of panel she wants to join

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SUSAN WALSH / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The House of Representatives’ freshman class gathers on Monday on the Capitol steps. With several races still undecided, there are 52 freshmen — 33 Democrats, 19 Republicans.

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Even before she arrived for her freshman class photo Monday morning, Nevada’s newest congresswoman-elect found herself in the middle of a political battle.

Two titans of the Democratic Party in the House, Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, are vying to head the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

They both want Dina Titus’ vote.

Waxman called her first, seeking her support last week.

Within no time, Dingell, who now leads the committee and is trying to keep his job, dialed her up with his pitch.

It’s a tough position for any freshman in Washington, having to make a highly political decision after having just arrived for orientation week.

She doesn’t even have an office yet. Or a staff. Or a house.

But Titus’ predicament comes with an additional twist: She wants a seat on the committee.

Not only must she choose which lawmaker should be chairman, she might want to pick the winning one, too, if she hopes to get a place on his panel.

Settling into a chair in the lobby of her hotel during a break Monday, Titus shrugged at the task before her.

She said she would look at the two men’s records before making her decision. She did not tell them of her own interest in the panel, believing that was inappropriate.

The veteran state senator, who led the Democrats in her chamber in Carson City before winning the congressional seat this month, never expected Washington politics to be easy.

“It was just interesting it happened that fast,” Titus said.

Welcome to Washington. This is transition week here, as those who won the election arrive for orientation, while the rest are back in town for a lame-duck session.

Titus defeated Republican Rep. Jon Porter, a three-term lawmaker, in a hard-fought campaign that has left some feelings still frayed.

(Titus says Porter still has not called to congratulate her, despite some very public complaints. Porter’s camp has said that the congressman left her a message on election night.)

Titus is among 52 freshmen (33 Democrats, 19 Republicans, with several races still undecided) entering Congress in January after having won seats in the second consecutive Democratic electoral wave.

The group lined up for a class photo Monday morning, then learned how to climb into hazmat suits and toured the capital complex.

Titus sees a home for herself as a member of the Women’s Caucus, the Western Caucus and one of the energy caucuses. She also will be among a few lawmakers in the Greek Caucus, a nod to her heritage.

Titus also said she is considering making a run for freshman class representative, but hasn’t yet decided.

But mostly, she said, she is focusing on service to constituents back in Nevada. To that end, she hired Jay Gersma, who ran her campaign, as chief of staff in Washington, and is assembling her Nevada team.

“You’re better off not getting so caught up in the Washington political scene,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be going home a lot on weekends.”

The race for the Energy Committee’s chairmanship has been gripping Washington as the two powerful lawmakers contend for the post this week.

Although the vote will be by secret ballot, the political ramifications can be big.

Dingell has led the committee for years, but his support for Detroit automakers in his home state has led to clashes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in 2006 established a separate committee to deal specifically with climate change.

Waxman’s challenge for the gavel comes as President-elect Barack Obama has made energy policy a top priority.

For Titus, winning a seat on the Energy committee would be unlikely as a freshman, as the top-tier positions are usually reserved for those with more seniority.

But when Republican Sen. John Ensign was first elected to the House in 1994, ousting a Democratic incumbent, he was awarded a coveted seat on the similarly top-tier Ways and Means Committee — something Porter and Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley didn’t earn until they had each served several terms.

Titus may be similarly rewarded by Democratic leadership for having toppled Porter. Plus, the party may want to provide her a prestigious slot so she will be well-positioned for reelection in two years in what is likely to again be a tough race.

However, if Titus is not chosen for the Energy panel, she said, she would seek assignment to other committees — Transportation, Education and Labor, and possibly Veterans Affairs.

“I’m going to make the best of what I get,” she said.

Late Monday, after dinner in the Capitol, the freshmen were planning a trip to the House floor. She expects that’s when the weight of her new job “kind of sinks in.”

As she stood to leave the hotel lobby, in her sharp brown tweed suit and sleek black high heels, another freshman who had been standing nearby asked if he could have a word with Titus.

In private.

He wanted to discuss her vote for chairman of the Energy committee.

As the sun set on the first day of orientation, the work in Washington was beginning.

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