Senate Completes Panel Assignments, With a Few Exceptions

Posted January 21, 2009 at 9:42pm

The Senate formalized committee assignments for the 111th Congress on Wednesday night, passing an organizing resolution that leaves some spots for both Democrats and Republicans open in order to accommodate vacancies caused by Cabinet nominations and an unresolved Senate race in Minnesota.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reserved spots for the replacements for former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was installed as secretary of State on Wednesday, and former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who became Interior secretary on Tuesday. Reid has also expressed confidence that Minnesota Democrat Al Franken will eventually be certified the winner in his race against former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman.

Republicans also were careful to leave several spots unfilled for Coleman on the Foreign Relations Committee; the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee; the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and the Special Aging Committee, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office confirmed. Agriculture would be a new slot for Coleman if he returns to the Senate.

Though the Minnesota canvassing board has certified Franken as the winner by just a few hundred votes, the case is wending its way through the state judiciary system before a formal declaration can be made, and Coleman has said he is confident he’ll emerge victorious.

Though Republicans already agreed to lopsided ratios on many panels and saw their numbers shrink on some committees, GOP retirements and election losses in 2008 opened up a number of plum assignments for those who remain. Democrats, on the other hand, were able to give most Conference members their choice of top-tier seats, but left vacancies on on many key panels, including Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Agriculture; Environment and Public Works; Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security; and Indian Affairs.

But the most coveted seats on Appropriations, Finance and Judiciary went to seasoned Senators, and not freshmen. New members of the Appropriations Committee include Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) were placed on the powerful Finance Committee. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) stepped down from the Judiciary panel, but Democrats added three — Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Vice President Joe Biden’s replacement, Ted Kaufman (Del.).

Democratic freshmen, however, did get some powerful posts. Freshman Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), along with veteran Republicans Richard Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.), were given plum spots on the Armed Services panel.

With an economic meltdown gripping the country, four Republicans — Vitter, Jim DeMint (S.C.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and freshman Mike Johanns (Neb.) — will join the Banking Committee, while Democrats appointed long-time Sen. Herb Kohl (Wis.), and freshmen Mark Warner (Va.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), to the committee.

Notably, presidential also-ran John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave up his spot on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to help make room for five new Republicans: Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Vitter, Brownback, Mel Martinez (Fla.), and Johanns. McCain picked up seats on Energy and Natural Resources and HELP.