Reid Prompts Early Fight Over Committees

Posted December 2, 2008 at 4:13pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is having a tough time selling a plan to parcel out subcommittee chairmanships to incoming freshmen while taking them away from the more established rank and file.

Already, Reid has made it known that he will enforce a little-known Senate rule that limits full committee chairmen to holding just one subcommittee gavel, but he also hopes to limit non-full-committee chairmen to no more than two subcommittee chairmanships.

Reid effectively has had to postpone an otherwise routine announcement of who will chair Senate panels in the 111th Congress because of the laborious process, which involves a lobbying campaign of senior Senators to surrender potentially plum subcommittee slots to benefit more junior Members.

“He’s trying to adjudge Member anger,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who noted Reid’s expanded 58-Member majority — which could increase by one or two more seats before year’s end — has made him eager to hand out gavels to new Senators.

However, for existing subcommittee chairman, “it’s about staff and money,” the aide explained.

Some of the delay has come because Senators who only hold subcommittee gavels are looking to full committee chairmen to move first before they sacrifice anything for the team.

“Once the 10 most senior people give up some of the cornucopia of goodies they have, then the rest of the caucus might be willing to follow suit,” another Senate Democratic aide said.

As originally conceived, the subcommittee plan would allow each Senator to choose one subcommittee chairmanship in order of their seniority in the Conference. Once everyone had chosen one, Members who are not full committee chairmen would go through a second round of picks.

But that plan has received resistance because some Members could lose other panels on which they have seniority. For example, a Senator such as Tom Carper (D-Del.) could use his first round pick to keep his subcommittee chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, only to watch someone else grab up the other subcommittee gavels he currently wields on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee or the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel.

With Reid hoping to give every Democratic Senator a subcommittee chairmanship, only a handful would even get more than one. There are currently 72 subcommittees in the Senate, which means a maximum of 16 Democrats would be able to sit atop two subcommittees.

Senators discussed Reid’s plans at the Democrats’ organizational meeting on Nov. 18 but came to no conclusions, aides said.

It was at that same meeting that Democrats voted to retain Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) as chairman of Homeland Security but stripped him of his membership on EPW. Lieberman argued afterward that he offered up the EPW slot in part to keep with Reid’s newly enforced committee chairmanship rules.

“There are bigger bulls in the Senate that are going to fight Sen. Reid on this. This sort of thing might be stopped in its track,” said yet another Senate Democratic aide.

Already some Members are talking about their decisions. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told Roll Call: “I’m not going to give up the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and I’m not going to give up Foreign Operations.”

Leahy chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, which has jurisdiction over the State Department. He did not say if he had already spoken to Reid about his committee assignments.

Reid said Tuesday that he would be talking to Members in the coming days about which subcommittees they would be willing to relinquish in order to give new Members a seat at the table.

Reid “is working with more senior Members to make sure more junior Members have a seat at the table,” said Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau, who declined to specify exactly what Reid’s plan was for doling out influence within the Democratic Conference.

If Reid succeeds in enforcing a two subcommittee chairmanship limit, it may force Senators such as Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) or Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) to make some difficult choices.

Dorgan chairs three subcommittees: one on Appropriations, one on Commerce, Science and Transportation and one on Energy and Natural Resources. Cardin does not currently chair any subcommittees but is in line to head up panels on Environment and Public Works, Foreign Relations and Judiciary, given the limits on full committee chairmen.

But the consequences are potentially far-reaching for many other Members depending on which committee assignments they choose. Democrats expect to expand their majorities on all committees by at least one seat. Plus, at the beginning of each new Congress, Members of all rank and seniority jockey for open positions and sometimes leave open other committee spots when they receive a coveted assignment on panels such as Appropriations or Finance.

Tim Taylor contributed to this report.