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Stevens Relents On Homeland

Yielding to his House counterpart, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) plans to create a new subcommittee overseeing Homeland Security operations and to expand the jurisdiction of the Treasury-Postal Service subcommittee.

Stevens said Tuesday that the committee would in all likelihood adopt the plan already ratified by House appropriators, whose move earlier this month infuriated Stevens because he thought there was a deal to hold off on reorganizing until both chambers were in agreement about how to proceed.

The restructuring of some of the 13 highly influential spending panels could set off a merry-go-round of new subcommittee assignments for the so-called “cardinals” and Democratic ranking members, with intriguing internal and political ramifications.

Stevens said he now accepted House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young’s (R-Fla.) assertion that the House side had to act by Feb. 15 to meet that chamber’s statutory deadline for committee reorganization. Because of the need to hold House-Senate conferences on each of the 13 bills, both Appropriations panels had to have matching subcommittees or it would add too much confusion to an already chaotic annual process, Stevens said.

“I assume we’ll follow the same plan as the House,” he said, adding: “We can’t have different subcommittees. We have to mesh.”

Aides to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking member, said Byrd had been battling a bout of bronchitis and wouldn’t be able to sit down with Stevens to finalize committee structure plans until today.

The new committee structure is likely to be ratified later this week, Stevens said, when the committee will meet to officially reorganize, meeting the Senate’s Feb. 28 deadline for formally setting up each committee and its funding resolution for the next two years.

The panel will take many of the existing programs — such as aviation security — in the Transportation subcommittee’s portfolio and turn that into the Homeland Security panel, shifting highway and other nonsecurity issues to the Treasury-Postal Service subcommittee.

The looming question for the chamber’s internal politics is which Senators will take over the homeland subcommittee as chairman and ranking member, and the ensuing ripple effect it will create with the gavels of other panels.

Stevens said he would apply a “no bumping” rule on selecting subcommittee chairmen, essentially using a strict seniority system that allows the Senators with the most time served on the committee to have first dibs on the gavel of their choice.

In a slight surprise, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said Tuesday he was close to deciding to take over the homeland panel, giving up his Agriculture subcommittee.

“I’m seriously considering the responsibility,” he said.

Cochran, who also chairs the Agriculture Committee, had the chance to claim the rare double power play of controlling the authorizing committee and the appropriations subcommittee of a single agency. But he said his full committee chairmanship at Agriculture provided him enough control of farm issues for him to take another subcommittee on Appropriations.

If he ultimately decides against taking the Homeland Security subcommittee, he said he would “probably” take over the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education panel, assuming Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) gave up Labor-HHS to take Homeland Security.

“That’s an option,” Cochran said.

Cochran is second in seniority to Stevens, with Specter third, followed by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Specter, a former Philadelphia district attorney and senior member of the Judiciary Committee, would appear certain to take over at Homeland Security if Cochran punts, giving him spending control over a $36 billion agency being run by his state’s former governor, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Specter declined Tuesday to speculate about the shifting subcommittee chairmanships, dismissing any talk of his taking over Homeland Security “until it’s available.”

It’s unclear who, further down the line, would take over at Agriculture in Cochran’s absence, although the leadership at one subcommittee is certain: Stevens is staying put at Defense, where he will be joined by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who has used that panel to help steer billions of dollars in military spending to his home state.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Byrd has a rather enticing option in front of him. After spending most of last fall fighting against what he considered the hasty creation of the massive domestic security agency, Byrd could choose to now take over as ranking member of the homeland subcommittee.

Aides declined to say whether Byrd would leave his Interior subcommittee post for the new panel.

If Byrd stays put, with Inouye certain to remain at Defense, the next in line would be Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who last Congress served as ranking member of the subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and judiciary. Hollings, 81, is up for re-election in 2004, and becoming ranking member of the new subcommittee could help boost his anti-terrorism credentials in the conservative Palmetto State if he chooses to run again.

If Byrd and Hollings balk at the new subcommittee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) could have the rare opportunity of spending control over one domestic security agency and oversight control of the other security agencies.

Already ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, with primary authority over the Justice Department and the FBI, Leahy could take over the ranking membership of the Homeland Security subcommittee.

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