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Commerce Shakeup May Cut Out McCain

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is proposing a major restructuring of the Commerce Committee that would dilute former Chairman John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) influence over the nation’s telecommunications laws while empowering junior panel members in other jurisdictional matters.

Stevens, the new chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wants to eliminate the communications subcommittee and fold those responsibilities into his own portfolio. This would give Stevens considerable control over reshaping the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a task the Alaska Senator has vowed to undertake this year.

McCain had planned on heading the communications subcommittee this year after Republican term limits forced him to relinquish the full committee’s chairmanship at the close of the 108th Congress. But the relationship between the two Senators has been strained by McCain’s frequent criticism of Stevens for his “pork barrel” spending as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Republican sources and K Street lobbyists suggested Stevens is now punishing McCain for his years’ of barbed criticism.

“For those of us who have sat and watched Senators McCain and Stevens over the years, it seems blatantly apparent that this move is retribution for McCain’s criticism,” said a senior aide to a GOP Member of the Commerce panel, who spoke freely about the proposal on the condition of anonymity.

But Stevens dismissed speculation that he is now penalizing McCain for the Arizonan’s floor speeches attacking the Alaskan’s stewardship of the Appropriations panel.

“I don’t believe you gain anything at all by vindictiveness,” Stevens said in a interview Friday. In fact, the Alaska Republican said he is crafting a new panel with McCain in mind “to give him an opportunity to be very much involved in the things he has been involved with in the past.”

Stevens said since Republican rules do not allow him to chair a subcommittee, his only way to oversee communications issues is to elevate them to the full committee level.

“I want to have something I am working on and that is going to be it,” he said of the Telecommunications Act overhaul. “I understand there is some grumbling about that but that is the way it is.”

Stevens said he has not spoken to McCain about the proposal, and added that the former chairman never expressed to him personally a desire to chair the communications subcommittee. Still, Stevens said he is making every effort to “create a subcommittee that I think will meet exactly what I think Senator McCain likes to be involved in it.”

“I may be wrong in guessing it. … I think it will have a great deal of appeal to Senator McCain. But we will have to wait and see if he wants to take it,” he added.

Stevens said he would not divulge what the subcommittee’s proposed jurisdiction would include until he spoke about it with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Inouye, the senior Democrat on the Commerce panel, and Stevens are scheduled to meet this week.

“It will be decided on a bipartisan basis,” Stevens said. “It is not going to be decided on just a partisan basis.”

A spokeswoman for McCain did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to abolishing the communications subcommittee, Stevens’ reorganization calls for increasing the number of his panel’s subcommittees from seven to 10 in order to provide sharper definition to a committee that has jurisdiction on issues as diverse as economic development and product safety.

For example, the oceans, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee would be divided into three separate panels under Stevens’ plan: fisheries and Coast Guard; national ocean policy study; and global climate change. The science, technology and space subcommittee would be split into two subcommittees to differentiate jurisdiction over science, space and high-tech issues. The reorganization is being closely watched not only by committee members but also the lobbyists with business before the panel.

“I am watching this as close as I can, because it will dictate the agenda and how things are going to be processed this year,” said a telecommunications lobbyist, who asked not to be named.

There has been mixed reaction from panel members as to the proposed changes, with some embracing the concept and others expressing concern about it.

“I think there needs to be a telecommunications subcommittee,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “In the proposal there is not one. I think that would be a mistake, but I have not studied it in great detail.”

Several other Senators, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration about the proposed changes, fearing that they would weaken their authority on the committee.

But Stevens pledged to give the subcommittees wide-ranging power in helping shape legislation. “I intend to run this so that subcommittees have the primary responsibility and the full committees acts on subcommittee recommendations,” he said.

Not all Senators were critical of the proposal. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is a committee member who supports the expansion of the subcommittees because it would give him the ability to wield more power.

“It gives me an opportunity to be ranking on the subcommittee,” Lautenberg said. “I enjoy the work on the committee and this gives me a chance to be a little more effective.”

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