Senate Panels Still in Limbo

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:55pm

With two potential Democratic Senate seats in limbo, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are finding it difficult to resolve a key issue for the 111th Congress — the makeup and size of the chamber’s committees.

“We haven’t worked that out yet. Republicans haven’t been very cooperative,” Reid complained Wednesday.

The uncertainty surrounding whether Democrat Al Franken will ultimately be declared the victor over Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) as well as the controversial appointment of Roland Burris to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama has become a key sticking point in negotiations over the Senate’s organizing resolution.

Approving an organizing resolution is one of the first things the Senate must do at the beginning of each Congress, in order to designate chairmen, appoint new Members to panels and set the ratios for how large a majority the ruling party will enjoy.

However, Democrats complain that Republicans are insisting on using the current 57-41 party breakdown as a starting point for negotiations — a scenario that makes it harder for Democrats to argue for a larger majority on committees.

“They’re trying to negotiate this off of 57 when it’s obvious it’s going to end up at least at 58, and probably 59,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

But Republicans said Democrats are asking for too much.

“The Democrats’ initial suggestion far overplayed their hand,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said. “And probably when we come back with a counter, they’ll think that’s far from reality, but this is a negotiation.”

Though details were sketchy, it appears that Democrats are seeking to have larger majorities on some committees than others. The GOP aide said Democrats had requested at least a three-seat majority on the Senate Finance panel, for example. For other committees, the Democratic advantage could be as low as two seats. Currently, Democrats have a one-seat edge.

The Democratic leadership aide confirmed that Reid is seeking to have larger majorities on some powerful panels but declined to say which committees those were. Democrats also warned that Republicans were wary of changing the size of some committees or scaling them down, because that might create a situation where a sitting GOP Senator would lose a plum assignment.

Though both sides said they are currently far apart in their proposals, neither believes they are at a stalemate, and aides said they expect the issues to be resolved in the coming weeks, if not sooner.

Reid and McConnell may not wait for the Franken race to wend its way through the courts nor for Burris’ appointment to be cleared of the “pay-to-play” corruption allegations that are surrounding embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

The Democratic leadership aide said Reid is considering offering a resolution that appoints chairmen and current Members to their seats. Franken and Burris would be given committee assignments at a later time under that scenario.

The aide noted the Senate would likely have to make other changes to committee slots if Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) are confirmed as secretary of State and secretary of the Interior, respectively. Plus, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden has yet to resign his seat, and his replacement will have to be given committee assignments.

Regardless, Democrats were confident they would eventually get Republicans to face the reality that Democrats are more likely than not to end up with a 59-41 majority in this Congress.

“Over the last four years, Democrats have picked up 14 Senate seats and at the end of the day, I think that reality will be reflected in the committee ratios,” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

House Republicans also got to work on committee assignments Wednesday, a process that Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned in advance would be disappointing given the slim number of open GOP slots on key committees.

Appropriations had few vacancies, despite eight of its Members not returning to Congress. Open seats went to Reps. Steven LaTourette (Ohio) and Tom Cole (Okla.).

Republicans lost two seats on Ways and Means. New members include Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite (Fla.), Geoff Davis (Ky.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Charles Boustany (La.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Peter Roskam (Ill.).

Four GOP spots were eliminated on Energy and Commerce, where Rep. Phil Gingrey (Ga.) was the lone Republican appointee. Financial Services faces an even tighter situation: Four Members did not return to the panel and four spots were eliminated.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.