Senate GOP Chairmen Ready to Swap Gavels

Posted January 16, 2004 at 9:50am

There’s only one year left before seven lame-duck GOP chairmen in the Senate hit their party-imposed six-year term limits, and a number of Democratic and Republican retirements promise to shake up the tops of a handful of other panels as well.

Come the 109th Congress, assuming Republicans retain their Senate majority, nearly all of the most influential committees in the Senate will see new GOP leadership.

For the most part, however, the changes amount to a game of musical chairs, with most top spots passing to a current lame duck asserting his seniority on another panel.

Most prominently, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will have to give up his gavel on the powerful Appropriations Committee, turning it over to current Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

However, Stevens will still take part in the weekly GOP chairmen meetings with Senate leaders because he will be replacing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at the top of the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel. It’s a step down from Appropriations, but Commerce is still a very influential committee with jurisdiction over the ever-changing telecommunications and technology markets.

McCain’s saving grace is his seniority on the Indian Affairs Committee, where he will replace current Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). While the Indian Affairs panel is far less influential, it is important to McCain’s home state.

Campbell, who first has to win re-election in Colorado, stands to take over the Veterans’ Affairs panel from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

Specter, who has been anxiously waiting to take over the Judiciary Committee, is expected to replace current Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). But Specter will first have to survive a tough GOP primary challenge from Rep. Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Insiders on both sides of the aisle note that the ongoing Democratic filibusters of a number of President Bush’s judicial nominees (which need to move through the committee before making it to the Senate floor) has the White House and some Senate GOP leaders nervous about Specter’s imminent ascension on Judiciary.

The moderate Specter has been a reluctant supporter of many of Bush’s controversial judicial nominees, and party leaders are not looking forward to his desire to use the panel’s oversight role of the Justice Department and FBI more rigorously than Hatch has.

To get around Specter’s rise on the panel, Senate GOP leaders could ask the Republican Conference (all 51 Senators) to grant Hatch a waiver from the term-limits rules, but there does not appear to be any movement so far to do that.

Of all the lame-duck chairmen this year, Hatch could be the biggest loser, unless both Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sign a waiver allowing him to extend his service on the Intelligence Committee.

Hatch is second in seniority to current Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who is slated to take over the Agriculture panel from Cochran.

But Senate rules prohibit Members from serving more than eight years on the Intelligence Committee, and Hatch will hit his limit at the end of this year. He could only become chairman if both Frist and Daschle agree. A similar waiver was granted to Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) in 2000.

Because Hatch came under fire for allegedly leaking sensitive Intelligence panel information about Osama bin Laden immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, both Frist and Daschle might think twice about granting the waiver to him. There is no evidence that Hatch has yet asked for a waiver or is planning to ask for one.

Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) would likely take over Intelligence if Hatch does not get a waiver.

Finally, the upcoming retirement of Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) opens up that panel to either Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) or Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).

Gregg currently chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is considered unlikely to relinquish that post. However, his office would not confirm that he has decided either way.

If Gregg gave up the HELP panel, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) would likely take over, because he is the most senior Member on the committee who does not already chair another panel or serve in GOP leadership. (The Republican leader and Whip are barred from simultaneously chairing a committee.)

Still, Allard appears to be the most likely man to take over Budget in 2005, which will inject some new blood into the GOP leadership team.

Senate Democrats also are due for some shifts at the top of several panels, thanks to the retirements of Sens. Fritz Hollings (S.C.), John Breaux (La.) and Graham.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) appears likely to take over the ranking minority slot on the Commerce panel from Hollings. To do so, however, he will have to relinquish his ranking spot on Indian Affairs.

Although Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are in line for the Indian Affairs opening, Conrad is unlikely to give up his ranking position on Budget, and Reid’s time-consuming duties as Minority Whip as well as his ranking position on the Ethics panel will probably keep him from seizing the position.

That means the other Hawaii Senator, Daniel Akaka, is in line to replace Inouye on Indian Affairs.

And while Akaka is also in line to take over the top Democratic spot on the Veterans’ Affairs panel from Graham, his spokesman, Paul Cardus, said the Senator prefers the Indian Affairs spot.

With Akaka passing on the Veterans’ Affairs ranking position, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is likely to fill the void and become the only current Democratic woman to sit atop a Senate panel. (West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller outranks both Akaka and Murray on Veterans’, but his spokeswoman said he would likely keep his ranking minority status on the Intelligence panel.)

Meanwhile, Breaux’s departure opens up the ranking minority position on the Aging Committee, which acts primarily in an advisory role to other panels and does not consider legislation. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) is likely to take the top spot on that panel.

In the House, a number of changes to committees are also expected in the 109th Congress, but the outcome is far from certain. Unlike the Senate, House GOP leaders do not use seniority to choose panel chairmen, electing to handpick chairmen who will be loyal to the leadership.

With House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) hitting the six-year term limit for GOP chairmen, a three-man race among current Appropriations members Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has emerged to replace him.

Two other Members are vying to replace retiring House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.).

In the wake of the retirement announcement of the original heir apparent — Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.) — both Reps. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) and Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) have expressed interest in the Intelligence position.

House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) also will reach his chairmanship term limit at the end of this year. But because the Rules chairman serves at the pleasure of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Dreier could get a waiver.

If he doesn’t get a waiver, the powerful gavel could fall to Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) or House GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).

Additionally, a decision by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) to retire at the end of this year, as is expected, would open up that panel for a change at the top. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is considered the frontrunner for that position.