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Dodd Juggles Triple Challenge

President Barack Obama’s ambitious goals of rewriting the books on health care and financial market regulation by year’s end appear increasingly dependent on how thin Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) can spread himself.

Not only does Dodd wield the gavel as the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs chairman, but he also is acting as a stand-in for an ailing Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Complicating his day job further, the Connecticut Democrat is facing the toughest re-election fight of his 29-year Senate career.

Obama is preparing to unveil a proposal to re-regulate the financial markets, and he expects a massive health care reform bill on his desk by Oct. 15, a task with which the HELP panel is intimately involved.

Acknowledging publicly what has been an open secret for weeks, Dodd — the No. 2 Democrat on HELP — said Tuesday that he is filling a void left by Kennedy, who has been absent from the Senate for much of the past year battling brain cancer. Dodd insists that pulling double duty will not jeopardize Obama’s priorities, although some of his fellow Democrats are skeptical.

“The question is, can Dodd do health care, still do some stuff with Banking and run his re-election campaign?— asked one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide. “That’s a tall order for anyone.—

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seems to think he can. Fielding questions about a busy summer schedule that includes moving forward on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Reid said he had no doubt Dodd could simultaneously manage legislation to overhaul the health care industry and financial markets.

“It’s not as if Sen. Kennedy is gone. They’re in daily contact, or virtually daily contact,— Reid said. “So, I feel real comfortable with what Sen. Dodd has done, and he got a huge round of applause today in the caucus [lunch] for … his duties that he’s had to fulfill, and he’s done them well.—

There’s little question the health care debate has quickly become all-consuming for Dodd, and it shows no sign of letting up. For weeks he has been attending near-daily — sometimes more — meetings with other Democrats on the HELP panel, and he has stepped up his public relations role by holding press conferences to tout the bill, including an event Tuesday morning to highlight the financial troubles faced by people without health insurance.

[IMGCAP(1)]Meetings with Republicans will begin today and continue this week.

Beginning Tuesday, Dodd will likely chair the contentious markup that committee aides said could span two weeks. Undoubtedly, between markup sessions he’ll be expected to field press calls, conduct television interviews and participate in other staged media events to keep up momentum for the measure. That kind of pace will likely continue as the measure moves to the Senate floor in July.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who sits on HELP and has been assigned by Kennedy responsibility for developing health care reform proposals to address prevention and wellness, said he does not expect Dodd’s competing responsibilities to cause delays in getting a bill to the floor. But Harkin conceded that his longtime colleague has a heavy workload.

“He’s great. I love Chris; he’s a great leader. He’s got a grasp on this — he knows it,— Harkin said. “I just wish that we could have had him a month before. But he had to do the credit card bill, he had to do the [Food and Drug Administration] bill, which he did great — the housing stuff. So, all that stuff he had to do. But now he’s clear.—

Dodd, who is up for a sixth term next year, told reporters Tuesday that he expects to complete the work on both of his committees without a hitch, in part because the schedule calls for the heavy lifting on Obama’s financial markets proposal to begin after the August recess. Additionally, Dodd said he plans to delegate some of the initial work on the bill to Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who is on the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions.

The health care bill unveiled by HELP Democrats on Tuesday will ultimately be merged with another measure being written by the Finance Committee. The married measure is expected to hit the floor sometime in July, and Dodd noted how his close personal relationship with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) — considered the lead Senate Democrat on health care — could help keep those plans on schedule.

“I’ve got some wonderful committee members, Sen. Kennedy’s staff, my staff, people who have worked on health care issues. Sen. Baucus and I were elected together in Congress in 1974 — we’ve known each other since the day we arrived here,— said Dodd, who is Kennedy’s closest friend in the Senate. “We have a great friendship, and our ability to meld these efforts together is going to be something we’re very comfortable doing, going back a long time.—

The Obama administration expects to present its restructuring of the financial regulatory system sometime next week. Though the topic may sound mundane, the political imperative to right the wrongs that brought the financial industry to near collapse last year remains strong.

The debate on this issue should prove no less thorny than the one over health care, considering Congress will have to sort out issues of merging various banking and financial products’ regulators — each of which has vocal constituencies on Capitol Hill. And the matter is considered much trickier than changing the rules for credit cards, which Dodd did successfully earlier this year.

For example, aides said Dodd might have to go head to head with Harkin, the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry chairman, and others on that panel if Obama’s plan includes a merger of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which the Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over.

“It’s very, very complicated,— the knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide said. “It’s not something you can just sell like credit card reform.— Still, the aide said, the SEC’s internal review of changes to its regulations could give Dodd an additional excuse to delay action.

Democrats on the committee and in leadership do not appear concerned about the pace of the Banking panel as they did when Dodd disappeared to Iowa for months in his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nod in 2008, according to a second Senate Democratic aide. While Dodd was camped out with his family campaigning, Democrats groused that the housing and mortgage crises were just beginning to hit and there was no one tackling the problem.

That sojourn into presidential politics is one of the reasons Dodd remains in serious jeopardy of losing his Senate seat to a Republican challenger despite the strong Democratic tilt of his home state.

Former Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.) is considered the GOP’s leading candidate, but he will have to win the party’s nomination over businessman Tom Foley and state Sen. Sam Caligiuri.

Dodd also faces a Democratic primary challenger, Merrick Alpert.

But this time, the aide said, Democrats view his distraction differently.

And in fact, Reed said he does not anticipate that Dodd’s focus on health care will impede him from focusing on the Banking Committee and completing the work that needs to be done on financial regulations.

“It’s a huge demand on Chris, but he’s capable of it. In fact, he’s already demonstrated that with the credit card bill coming through,— Reed said. “I mean, that was just a superb job of bringing consensus and getting an overwhelming passage. So, no one can do it better.—

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