Inouye Faces His First Test

Senators Want Tough Chairman

Posted May 6, 2009 at 6:36pm

With a $94 billion supplemental war spending bill looming, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) is about to confront his first major test as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and Senate Democrats are counting on him to flex the chamber’s muscle in negotiations with the House.

“The question is will he be more aggressive and assertive with [the House] in conference,— one Senate Democrat said.

An old hand in the appropriations game and an ardent believer in the Senate’s seniority system, the 84-year-old Inouye was put in the uncomfortable position of taking over the panel this year after Senate Democratic leaders successfully pressed a frail, 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to step down last fall.

Because of that effort, several Democrats said, Inouye may be under more pressure during the House-Senate conference talks on the supplemental later this month. Byrd was forced out in part because he was seen as a weaker counter to House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), whom many Senate Democrats view as erratic and domineering.

Yet despite his soft-spoken, spotlight-averse style, Democrats said, don’t be fooled: Inouye is unlikely to be bowed by Obey’s tactics.

“Beneath a very calm exterior, Danny Inouye is a man who’s very stubborn about issues that he supports,— said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who sits on Appropriations. “I’ve seen it time and time again. I’ve been on the other side of him, and I noticed how steely he was.—

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another appropriator, agreed that the eight-term Democrat who lost his right arm fighting in World War II is ready for legislative combat.

“Dave Obey is formidable, but I have all the confidence in Danny Inouye,— Durbin said. “He is battle-tested.—

In an interview on Wednesday, Inouye, who has been on the powerful committee since 1971, said he does not find Obey difficult to work with and looks forward to a smooth conference on the supplemental.

“It will be, hopefully, a conference that is based upon logic and reason. I’m not one of the shouting types,— Inouye said.

Inouye also said he hopes to break Congress’ recent penchant for blowing past the annual Oct. 1 deadline for enacting the regular appropriations bills that fund the government.

“I’ve been conferring with my subcommittee chairs, and I think we all agree that we should apply regular order and do our utmost in assuring every subcommittee measure is considered and passed before the end of the fiscal year,— he said. Though Congress passed an omnibus spending bill earlier this year, Inouye was not chairman last year when it was crafted.

[IMGCAP(1)]Democratic Senators and aides this week said Inouye’s strength in negotiations with the House — as well as with the White House — will likely rest on the fact that he is a Senate institutionalist at heart and dedicated to protecting the chamber’s prerogatives.

But Inouye may also cause some heartburn in the Obama White House given his unabashed defense of earmarking funds for pet projects and the president’s stated desire to rein in that practice. In the past, Inouye has indicated he believes it is his duty as a Member to bring home federal dollars in the form of earmarks.

However, one trait that Democrats said could cut both ways is Inouye’s reliance on collegiality and his well-known aversion to partisan bickering.

“There are some who feel that he may be too accommodating and give up too much,— one Senate Democratic aide said. That concern, the aide said, is more about what Inouye might offer to Senate Republicans and less about how he might engage with the House.

Indeed, that characteristic caused some grumbling in the previous Congress when Inouye chaired the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where he often appeared to defer to the ranking member — his longtime friend, former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — on many issues. The two Senators often refer to each other as best friends, and Inouye actively campaigned for Stevens in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for re-election last year.

Still, the aide said Inouye could end up being a more effective Appropriations chairman than Byrd, who, despite his declining health, famously retaliated against Members who crossed him.

“Robert C. Byrd was feared,— the aide said. “People don’t fear Dan Inouye. They respect him.—

Only six years younger than Byrd, Inouye said he never would have assumed the chairmanship had Byrd refused to step aside. Byrd’s decision came after more than a year of nudging from Democratic leaders, who felt he no longer could lead one of the chamber’s most influential panels, particularly with a Democrat in the White House.

“I was public and private that I was hoping that Sen. Byrd would stay in office — in this office — and carry on,— Inouye said. “His mind is clear. Physically he may be not quite up to par, but that applies to all of us. And I recall over the many years that I served on this committee there were two Senators who chaired this committee while they were literally on their deathbed.—

Inouye, who is expected to run for re-election in 2010, did not indicate whether he believes he’ll be running the committee from his deathbed, but he said he is not concerned about whether Democratic leaders might try to remove him as chairman in the future.

“That’s up to the Senate,— Inouye said. “I’m not here to protect my job.—