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Gavels in Place for Now

Senate Democrats on Wednesday finally settled on the leadership of three key panels for the remainder of the 111th Congress, but questions sprang anew over who in their Conference would chair the trio of committees beyond next year.

After two weeks of parlor games, Democrats announced that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) would stay put as chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and not take over for his late friend, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who led the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Dodd’s decision made way for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to take the HELP gavel, and left Harkin’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry chairmanship to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

But the musical chairs may only amount to 16-month posts.

Dodd maintains his seniority on HELP and may try to claim control of that committee in the 112th Congress. In the meantime, Dodd said he will continue to serve as the panel’s lead member on health care reform this year, a role he assumed while Kennedy was battling brain cancer.

When asked about what he might do in 2011, assuming he wins a difficult re-election bid next year, Dodd said: “I’m preserving my authority, but that’s obviously years away.—

As he announced his intentions, K Street quickly moved to a defensive position, with financial services lobbyists bracing themselves for another year and a half of Dodd as the Banking chairman.

While long viewed as an ally of the banking and insurance industries, Dodd has recently taken an aggressive pro-consumer approach to the financial services industry. Many lobbyists anticipate Dodd will continue that approach as he oversees the Senate’s overhaul of the financial and regulatory systems.

Financial services lobbyists were hoping that Dodd would move to HELP, allowing financial industry stalwart Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to become Banking chairman.

“The worry is the politics will overtake the substance,— one financial services executive said.

After already passing the credit card bill and executive compensation bills, the Banking Committee is poised to take on the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and, possibly, a mortgage “cram down— bill as part of a regulatory overhaul.

That could spell an all-out lobbying blitz by the financial services sector.

“The industry is working hard to help homeowners stay in their homes,— said Financial Services Roundtable’s Scott Talbott. “We think the cram-down bill will eviscerate current loan modification programs.—

And while K Street was preparing for Dodd’s continued leadership on Banking, other lobbyists were assessing what Harkin brings to HELP.

While much of the Senate health care debate has moved to the Finance Committee, health care lobbyists are still wary of Harkin — a leading liberal — inserting himself into the delicate negotiation process.

Harkin has never been shy about his priorities, nor is he known for a willingness to broker deals.

And while HELP’s role in the debate has been diminished, Harkin could step into a more visible role in the coming weeks if Democrats resort to reconciliation to pass a health care bill. The procedural tactic would require the HELP Committee to report a new health bill out of committee.

Still, Harkin isn’t an unknown quantity. Health care lobbyists have lobbied the Iowa Democrat through his position on the Appropriations Committee.

Labor groups applauded Harkin’s new role on HELP as a way to push for the Employee Free Choice Act, a top priority. The act, otherwise known as “card check,— would make it easier for employees to unionize.

Lincoln’s leadership at Agriculture is another question. In many ways, Lincoln, a moderate from a swing state who like Dodd is up for re-election in 2010, is an unknown quantity, having never chaired a full committee before.

But farm lobbyists responded positively to her taking the reins of the Agriculture panel; Lincoln is expected to be a much more moderate advocate for farm interests, lobbyists predict.

However — just like Dodd and his possible future chairmanship of the HELP Committee — it’s unclear how long Lincoln will keep the Agriculture gavel. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) outranks Lincoln in seniority, and agriculture lobbyists speculated that Conrad could cede control of the Budget Committee come 2011. Conrad is up for re-election in 2012, a factor that may weigh heavily on his decision.

Conrad expressed interest in the Agriculture leadership position on Wednesday, but like Dodd, he remained mum on his plans beyond next year.

“At this critical moment for the fiscal affairs of the country, it was important for me to stay at the top of the Budget Committee,— Conrad said.

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