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Cochran Moves On Panel Shifts

Despite predictions from some corners that his chamber would never agree to a sweeping reorganization of the Appropriations Committee, Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is working to bring his fellow Senators on board with a redesign similar to one rapidly moving forward in the House.

House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) appears set to reduce his panel’s number of subcommittees from 13 to 10, robbing three current cardinals of their gavels. Cochran said he would hold a meeting this afternoon of Senate Republican appropriators to gauge their interest in following the House’s lead.

“I’m in the process of trying to determine if we have a consensus in our committee,” said Cochran. “I’m in favor of improving and modernizing the committee, but I’m not going to do it by myself.”

At today’s meeting, Cochran said he would ask GOP Senators to weigh in on the proposed changes, which have already come under fire from appropriators such as Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who would lose his chairmanship of the subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies if it were dissolved under the House plan.

Cochran said he hoped to be able to provide the House with a counterproposal.

Though appropriators have floated a plan that would allow Bond to take over a revamped subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, it is far from certain that Bond will go along with the plan.

“Sen. Bond has not been convinced that these changes are necessary, and he wants to see the VA panel preserved,” said Rod Ostrander, Bond’s spokesman.

Besides, if Bond were to boot Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) from the subcommittee on Transportation, it would set off a reshuffle among four subcommittee chairmen and the three remaining subcommittees.

Affected Senators include Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and State; Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the subcommittee on Agriculture; and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairwoman of the subcommittee on military construction. As lowest ranking among the four, Hutchison would be the most likely to lose her chairmanship. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) would already lose his chairmanship of the subcommittee on the District of Columbia under the House plan.

Still, Cochran appeared upbeat about the chances for some streamlining of the Senate panel. Citing the House’s decision two years ago to create a subcommittee on Homeland Security without consulting the Senate, Cochran said he was pleased that House leaders have sought his input, as well as that of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), before acting on any reorganization.

“If we want to try to reach an agreement with the House on organization, this is the time to do it,” said Cochran.

Regardless of whether the Senate decides to mirror the House, Cochran said he is opposed to creating a separate subcommittee for intelligence. That change was approved by the Senate last year as part of an overhaul of the way the government deals with intelligence data.

If the Senate does not follow the House’s lead, it is unclear how the two chambers would conference their disparate bills. One theory is that bills would be grouped into a series of “mini” omnibuses.

On the House side, the Republican Steering Committee is expected to interview the 10 remaining cardinals Wednesday, and the full Appropriations panel could formally ratify the new subcommittee structure as early as next week.

Under Lewis’ scenario, Reps. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) would lose their gavels.

Istook has already conceded that he will lose his gavel, telling The Associated Press, “It appears that, as a result of reorganization, I will not be chairing a subcommittee this session. Certainly, I expect to be back as a chairman in the not-so-distant future.”

Istook has emphasized to the press that he believes the decision to take away his gavel has nothing to do with his behavior last year, when he dropped some Members’ transportation projects from his bill because they supported increased Amtrak funding.

Neither Lewis nor any member of the leadership has publicly stated that Istook is being punished, but they also haven’t explained why the Oklahoman has to lose his post while the two cardinals below him on the seniority list — Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) — are keeping theirs.

Kingston, meanwhile, is taking the changes in stride.

“He supports reorganization, both philosophically and in practice, no matter what happens to him,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Kingston.

It is not clear who would take Istook’s old position as chairman of the Transportation-Treasury panel. Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) could fill that post, or he could take the gavel of the newly bolstered military construction subcommittee and leave the Transportation gavel to Knollenberg.

“It’s Chairman Lewis’ decision,” Knollenberg spokesman Chris Close said of his boss’s plans. “He’s going to serve in whatever capacity the chairman wants him to serve in.”

The reorganization will have a ripple effect beyond the current crop of cardinals. Under the previous GOP lineup, Reps. Roger Wicker (Miss.), Duke Cunningham (Calif.) and Todd Tiahrt (Kan.) were the next three lawmakers in line to take subcommittee gavels when they come open.

Now, however, those Members will presumably have to wait behind Istook, Frelinghuysen and Kingston before they can become cardinals.

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