WASHINGTON — After privately scrambling last week to avoid sending an all-male contingent to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, House Democrats have decided to name California Rep. Linda Sanchez to the panel.
She will assume the post after Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who was expected to take the slot, agreed to withdraw from consideration. Sanchez was the first Latina to sit on committee when she won a spot in 2009, but was among the Democrats booted from the panel when Republicans retook the majority in the House.
“I am very excited to re-join the House Ways and Means Committee, especially as we work toward solving the critical issues our country currently faces," Sanchez said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed. "I greatly appreciate Leader (Nancy) Pelosi and Congressman Van Hollen helping me secure a spot on this crucial committee and recognizing that my experience and perspective as a woman and a Latina will provide a voice for these two constituencies on the Ways and Means Committee.”
Van Hollen, who is also the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, "decided to step aside so the committee could be more diverse," one House Democratic aide confirmed. At one point, Sanchez and Van Hollen shared a private conversation about the switch on the House floor.
Had the committee's Democratic contingent consisted entirely of male lawmakers, it might have complicated House Democrats' message of caucus diversity, which has been a chief party talking point since the election, and weakened their attacks on the Republican conference for its homogeneity.
Cognizant of those optics, particularly on such a high-profile committee, Van Hollen made his decision last week to back Sanchez, according to one Democratic strategist.
"This is a smart, strategic move by Van Hollen that shows he's a team player and understands the importance of making sure women serve on key committees," the strategist said.
An aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it "wasn't out of the blue," and that Pelosi identified the lack of women on the committee as a problem and set out to address it.
"It's the kind of thing that if not handled well tends to blow up," the aide said. "It was handled with such ease that it didn't become that."
The decision is a huge boon for Sanchez, who has "been working for practically the entire two years" since she lost her seat on the committee to find a path back, said another Democratic aide. She lobbied the House Democratic leadership regularly and was considered to be next in line after Van Hollen.
Sanchez will fill the seat on the committee being vacated by Rep. Shelley Berkley, who was the sole Democratic woman on the committee and is set to leave Congress after having lost a race for the U.S. Senate against Dean Heller.
"Rep. Sanchez will offer immense insight to the Ways and Means Committee next Congress," said Bridgett Frey, a spokesperson for Van Hollen. "Rep. Van Hollen looks forward to working with her and the entire Democratic Caucus on the important fiscal issues facing our nation."
Van Hollen, who has been in touch with the White House as House Democrats' lead negotiator during talks to avert the fiscal cliff, will maintain his spot on the budget committee.
Update: On Wednesday, House Democrats announced that Rep. Allyson Schwartz will also join the Ways and Means Committee, bringing the number of Democratic women to two.