Leahy Raises Questions Over Specter Subcommittee Chairmanship

Posted May 7, 2009 at 11:43am

Updated: 1:32 p.m.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Thursday appeared to throw a little cold water on the Democratic leadership’s plan to give recent party-switcher Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) a plum subcommittee chairmanship.

Though Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced earlier in the day that he would relinquish the Crime and Drugs subpanel and take over a reconstituted Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Leahy told reporters, “Nothing’s been worked out.—

Leahy indicated that he does not know how he will fund the new subcommittee, which existed in the 110th Congress but was disbanded this year. “Maybe the leader has some money,— Leahy said referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

In a statement, Leahy added: “I value the contributions of all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the longstanding service of Senator Specter. I am consulting with Senator [Jeff] Sessions, our Republican Ranking Member, in light of our recently revised Committee membership to consider any necessary adjustments to Judiciary Committee subcommittees. I hope to have a decision by early next week.—

Specter, however, said he talked to Leahy Thursday morning and feels secure that he will chair the subcommittee. He plans to hold his first hearing on imposing tougher penalties, such as jail time, on individuals convicted of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Durbin told reporters Thursday, “It will be up to Sen. Leahy— whether the Subcommittee on Human Rights will be created, but he said his offer for Specter to chair Crime and Drugs would not be affected by Leahy’s decision.

However, one Senate Democratic aide said Leahy is unlikely to deny Durbin — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — a gavel and that the chairman is probably just trying to get more funding for the committee so he doesn’t have to give up any of his chairman’s funds to create the new subcommittee.

As for the question of whether Specter will be able to use the seniority he built as a Republican to leapfrog over his Democratic colleagues on committees, Specter said he is confident that will happen eventually.

“We’re working it through. I stand by the written statement that I issued yesterday that I’m confident that the seniority will be restored in due course,— he said.

Though both Reid and Specter indicated last week that Specter would retain his veteran Senate status, Reid moved this week to place Specter as the last ranking Democrat on several committees, including on Judiciary and Appropriations. Durbin’s offer to give Specter a subcommittee chairmanship has been seen as an attempt to mute criticism of the Democratic leadership’s treatment of Specter, who has been portrayed as being demoted. Specter gives the Democrats 59 seats, one shy of a filibuster-proof margin.

Meanwhile, Specter declined to say whether he agreed with Reid’s assertion Wednesday that he would vote with his new party on all procedural votes.

“I will talk to Sen. Reid about that,— said Specter, who cautioned, “Don’t make any assumptions. I’m just going to talk to Sen. Reid.—A flustered and angry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to discuss Specter’s status within his caucus, pointedly dodging questions about whether he had an arrangement with Specter for the Pennsylvanian to vote with Democrats on procedural votes.

Reid said on Wednesday that he expected Specter would vote with Democrats on procedural matters, which would help avoid Republican filibusters. But Specter has since said he would need to speak with Reid further on that matter.

During a meeting with reporters, Reid became increasingly agitated with questions regarding Specter.

“I’ve talked since Monday night last week about Specter. … I’m not going to explain and re-explain and re-explain,— Reid said. Later, when another reporter pressed Reid on the issue, the Democratic leader snapped, “I’m not going to satisfy your curiosity.—

Durbin defended his handling of a deal he has cut with Specter to turn over to the Pennsylvanian the gavel to the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. Leahy reacted angrily to news reports of the deal, going so far as to confront Durbin on the Senate floor Thursday morning.

Durbin said that despite Leahy’s statements that he has not signed off on the deal, he has repeatedly discussed it with the chairman and that he is confident he has acted properly.

“I’ve gone to Sen. Leahy repeatedly on this … and I’ve gone to every subcommittee member below me— in seniority to clear it with then, Durbin said. “I think I’ve done my due diligence.—

Durbin also rejected suggestions that the chairmanship agreement was a way to placate Specter, who found himself demoted to a freshman lawmaker on Tuesday despite 28 years of seniority in the Senate.

“I raised this issue long before feathers were ruffled,— Durbin said.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.