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Senate GOP Eyes Shifts in Committee Ratios, Staff

Senate Republicans publicly shied away Wednesday from starting negotiations on how to reshape the chamber’s 20 committees to accommodate their incoming 10-seat edge.

But the most recent precedent for organizing the chamber under a 55-45 split suggests the Democrats are in for a painful process of either bumping Senators off committees or simply not filling the spots of retiring or ousted Members.

Even more painful for lawmakers and their staffs, Republicans are certain to demand a larger share of the staff and funds for committees, possibly as high as two-thirds, as opposed to the mostly 50-50 split that has been in place since the reorganizing process at the start of 2001.

Such a move could mean that many Democratic staff jobs will be slashed.

In early 1999, when the Republicans last held a 55-45 edge, the resolution that set the panels in place provided the GOP with a two-seat edge on every committee — a precedent that some Republican aides were citing Wednesday in anticipation of a similar edge when the 109th Congress convenes.

But Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it is premature to begin discussing committee ratios and budgets, which will be negotiated by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), assuming Reid takes over, as expected, in the wake of the defeat of Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on Tuesday.

“All of this has to be negotiated with the minority — not only the ratios but the committee staffing,” McConnell said. “I think it is entirely too early to decide what we would be able to work out with the Democrats that is reasonable for them but also to reflect our strength in the Senate.

“I think we are going to have to negotiate this with the other side,” he added.

Those negotiations are likely to be delayed for several weeks as the Democrats regroup after Daschle’s landmark defeat.

If the two-seat edge on committees takes hold, Democrats could winnow down many of the panels through attrition as a result of the retirements of five Southern Democrats.

The newly elected Democratic leader could also step down from panels they currently serve to help soften the blow. On the 11-10 Finance Committee, for example, three Democrats will be off the panel: Daschle, plus retiring Sens. John Breaux (La.) and Bob Graham (Fla.). With one GOP retiree, Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.), the panel could be reshaped into a 10-8 majority, which would still leave room for Reid to add one Democrat — or two, if Republicans wanted an 11-9 panel.

At least four committees — Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Governmental Affairs and Indian Affairs — have no Democrats departing, a fact that could force one current member to leave.

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