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Graham Exit Opens Veterans Slot for Murray

Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) decision to retire next year could wind up becoming an issue in Washington state’s 2004 Senate race that pits Sen. Patty Murray (D) against Rep. George Nethercutt (R).

Graham’s decision to step down after three terms will open up several coveted committee assignments in the 109th Congress, including the ranking member slot on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Even though two Democrats on the committee have more seniority than Murray, the Senator is in line to take over the top Democratic position on the panel if re-elected next year.

Todd Webster, a Murray spokesman, said he is not sure if the Senator would tout this fact on the campaign trail next year, but he noted that she has a strong kinship with the veterans community.

“She volunteered at the Seattle [Veterans’ Affairs] hospital helping to treat soldiers returning from Vietnam and has a longtime interest in making sure America’s veterans are taken care of,” he said. “For the nearly 700,000 veterans in Washington state, Senator Murray has been a consistent fighter for their interests.”

Her ascent to ranking member on Veterans’ Affairs would be the result of two retirements and five colleagues’ plans to either step aside or head different Senate committees in the next Congress.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) would be in line to take over the Democratic reins of the Veterans’ Affairs panel, but he currently has the coveted vice chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee. Sen. Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), who ranks right behind Rockefeller in seniority on Veterans’ Affairs, has his sights set on the Indian Affairs Committee ranking member position, his spokesman said.

The Indian Affairs post will open up in 2005 when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) moves over to replace retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) as ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Two other senior Democrats on the Indian Affairs panel, Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.), have no plans to lay claim to that committee’s top job — opening the door for Akaka to claim it.

Conrad will continue to serve as the ranking member on the Budget Committee in the 109th Congress. Reid, who ranks No. 2 in the Democratic leadership, plans to allow Akaka to leapfrog him, thus giving both the Hawaii Democrat and Murray the opportunity to head committees in the 109th Congress.

Reid has a history of handing top committee jobs to his colleagues. In 2001, the Nevadan gave Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, when the Vermont Senator renounced his ties to the Republican Party to caucus with Democrats.

Akaka and Murray are not the only Democrats who will benefit from their colleagues’ retirements. Graham’s decision to retire also opens up a seat on the powerful Finance Committee and ranking member slots on subcommittees spread out over three different panels: Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works, and Finance.

Hollings’ decision to step down not only opens up the senior position on Commerce, it also makes available a ranking subcommittee seat on that committee and frees up an important seat on the Appropriations Committee.

A seat on the Intelligence panel and the Judiciary Committee will be up for grabs in 2005, a result of Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) retirement. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who is also retiring, did not have any high-profile committee assignments.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who is mulling retirement, would give up the top Democratic posting on the Aging Committee, as well as seats on Commerce and Finance, if he leaves.

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