Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will likely oust Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) from the top spot at the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel’s powerful communications subcommittee next year, when McCain will be forced to step down as chairman of the full committee.
The maverick Senator’s plan could cause problems for incoming Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is planning a major push next year to overhaul the nation’s telecommunications laws and frequently spars with McCain.
Internal Senate GOP term limits require chairmen to relinquish their posts after six years at the top of a panel. McCain will reach that threshold as Commerce chairman at the end of this year, and Stevens, who is term-limited out of his job as Appropriations chairman, will take over — assuming the GOP keeps control of the chamber.
Still, as the second-ranking Member on the Commerce panel, McCain has his choice of all seven subcommittees, and he confirmed Tuesday that he would prefer to take over the influential telecommunications gig from Burns.
Burns said he was aware of McCain’s interest in his subcommittee, but said he was unconcerned.
“I’m not going to get any gray hairs worrying about it,” Burns said.
Burns’ ranking as third in seniority on the panel will allow him to choose between the six other subcommittees, which could set off a potential wholesale reshuffling of the panel’s leadership.
Aviation subcommittee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) acknowledged that “there might be some musical chairs.”
But like Burns, Lott seemed content to use his position as fourth ranking Republican on the panel to pick another panel for himself, should the Montana Senator decide to grab the aviation panel.
Lott set off his own reshuffling of Commerce’s subcommittees in early 2003. After stepping down as Senate Majority Leader, Lott reclaimed his seniority on Commerce and took the aviation gavel from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).
Lott also indicated that, should he lose the aviation panel to Burns, he might be interested in Hutchison’s current chairmanship at the surface transportation and merchant marine subcommittee.
Plus, Lott, while careful to note he was not criticizing McCain’s leadership, said he was pleased that Stevens had already made it known that he would let subcommittee chairmen “be more involved” than they currently are in committee business.
More involvement from subcommittee chairmen could turn out to be a problem when Stevens tries to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act next year. A Stevens spokeswoman confirmed that is one of the Senator’s top priorities for the committee next year.
Relations between McCain and Stevens already are severely strained over the Arizona lawmaker’s penchant for criticizing pork barrel spending in the annual appropriations bills that Stevens has shepherded through the chamber.
But Lott suggested that Stevens could get around McCain and the communications subcommittee if he wanted to do that.
“I think that issue will end up in the full committee anyway,” said Lott. “Subcommittees pipe up every now and again, but the big stuff will end up at full committee.”
As for the other subcommittee chairmen, the silver lining may be in the departure Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), current chairman of the consumer affairs and product safety subcommittee, who is retiring from the Senate this year.
Because he will leave an opening, current subcommittee chairs are assured of chairing one panel or another, but perhaps not the one they currently chair.
The other current subcommittee chairs include: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) at oceans, fisheries and Coast Guard; Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) at science, technology and space; and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) at competition, foreign commerce and infrastructure.
Stevens does not currently chair a subcommittee on Commerce, though he is technically the current second ranking member.