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Dodd Considers Panel Openings

Following a disappointing 2008 presidential run that left him with diminished stature in the Senate Democratic Conference, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) is likely to find himself in the enviable position of having his choice of powerful committee chairmanships under a newly emboldened and enlarged majority.

Dodd has long harbored ambitions for the White House and for becoming the next Majority Leader, but those dreams may have faded. Dodd failed to register even 1 percent in the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses in January, and his decision to seek the presidency in the first place soured some Democratic colleagues who felt he abandoned his Senate duties for more than a year.

But the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman’s stock is poised to shoot up after Nov. 4 if Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) become president and vice president, respectively. A Democratic White House victory would create a vacancy for the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, which Dodd is in line to take over if he so chooses.

“He’s in a pleasant position,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “He’s got a lot of good choices.”

Schumer said he’d like Dodd to remain at the helm of Banking but noted he’d be a good fit for Foreign Relations if that gavel becomes available. “I think he’d be great at either one,” Schumer said.

Dodd also is the second-ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy has been stricken with a brain tumor, yet he returned to Washington this week to resume work.

Democratic aides said Dodd’s choices are not clear-cut, as the Banking and Foreign Relations committees in a new Democratic administration would oversee significant new policy initiatives. Although the HELP chairmanship is not available, Democratic aides said Kennedy’s health could force him to give up the committee before the end of the 111th Congress, potentially putting Dodd in a position to switch gavels midsession.

Dodd spokeswoman Kate Szostak was vague about the chairman’s plans, but she emphasized Dodd’s work on the Banking panel.

“Senator Dodd is focused on a substantial agenda in each of his committees, both for the remainder of this Congress and next year,” Szostak said. “As Chairman of the Banking Committee, he will be conducting vigilant oversight of the Treasury Department’s implementation of the recently enacted financial rescue law, as well as examining additional steps to strengthen the U.S. economy.”

Dodd told Roll Call a month ago that he would likely remain atop Banking to deal with the sagging economy and an overhaul of banking regulations that both parties have put a high priority on since the financial services industry began to melt down earlier this fall. Yet he has long eyed the Foreign Relations gavel, and he considers authoring the Family and Medical Leave Act as a HELP member one of his highest legislative achievements.

On Banking, Dodd “has an opportunity with the fiscal crisis to really make his mark as chairman,” one Senate Democratic aide said. “However, in the negotiations on the bailout, he wasn’t really the one who distinguished himself,” it was House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “The question is whether Dodd still sees [Banking] as a legacy builder.”

Plus, Dodd provoked many Senate Democrats in 2007 when he relentlessly pursued his long-shot presidential bid as the housing markets slumped. He further aggravated his colleagues by negotiating a housing bill this past summer that many Democrats felt gave in to too many GOP demands. He negotiated that deal amid a distracting ethics scandal over whether he received preferential treatment on his mortgage from a key lender in the subprime mortgage crisis, Countrywide Financial.

While he regained some credibility during negotiations on the $700 billion financial rescue plan this fall, “people are still saying, ‘He wasn’t here when we needed him,’” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

There are also home-state pressures and politics bearing on his decision. The Banking helm is a prime spot for his state’s insurance and banking interests, and Dodd’s presidential aspirations and the Countrywide imbroglio have hurt him at home, where a mid-October Hartford Courant poll shows him with a dangerously high 48 percent disapproval rating. In July, Dodd had a 51 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll.

One option Dodd could pursue, a Democratic aide said, would be to stay at Banking and retain position to take over the HELP panel. If Dodd relinquishes Banking, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is next in line and has expressed interest in asserting his seniority, according to a source close to Johnson.

Though most aides said the potential for a Dodd takeover of Foreign Relations appeared remote, they also said the committee provides the most potential for Dodd to remake himself.

Under an Obama administration, Dodd could be instrumental in refocusing foreign policy regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and other terrorist havens, aides suggested.

“He’d have a freer hand to do more things that enhance his legacy and increase his stature in America as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,” the senior Democratic aide said.

If the Foreign Relations post opens and Dodd declines it, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would be next in line.

Dodd isn’t the only one embroiled in a parlor game over chairmanships. Democratic aides said his home-state colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID) is likely to lose his chairmanship over his aggressive criticism of Obama’s candidacy as well as his endorsement of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) is in line to take over Lieberman’s gavel of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Democrats also are plotting how to persuade 90-year-old Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to step aside in the next Congress.

Another senior Democratic aide said Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was reluctant to move forward with recommendations to remove Byrd earlier this year because the Democratic caucus was split over whether to do it in the middle of a Congressional session. Now that the elections are nearly upon them, Democrats are largely united behind Reid to remove both Byrd and Lieberman, the aide said.

“There’s a coalescing of opinion now,” the aide said. “Reid has a certainty of purpose.”

Byrd has pushed back against recent reports that Democrats, including Reid, plan to oust him and install the next most senior Democrat, 84-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii).

“I am disappointed that, according to press accounts, the Majority Leader is talking to others about the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” Byrd said in a statement. “This is the sort of Washington back-room gossip which ill serves the Democratic Party in a year when Democratic unity should be paramount.”

Byrd also has stated his eagerness to work with Obama as president should he win on Tuesday, but he has stopped short of declaring that he will not step down from his chairmanship.

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