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Vote for Senate Chairmen Unlikely

Senate Democratic leaders last week shelved a caucus proposal that might have stripped some committee chairmen of their gavels by removing the seniority system.

Junior Members such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Benjamin Cardin (Md.) have been pushing a change to the Democratic caucus rules that would allow chairmen to be chosen by a secret ballot vote rather than by seniority.

Veteran lawmakers who benefit from the current system have opposed the change. 

Democratic leaders discussed the issue at their morning meeting Thursday and agreed to try to quietly tamp down enthusiasm for the change, according to Senate sources. 

Later that day when the issue was brought up at the caucus’ weekly luncheon, leader-approved surrogates presented the opposition to the rules change. While it was unclear who presented for the opposition, the individual was said to have pointed to the success of the current chairmen and the leadership they have provided.

Details of the discussion during the caucus meeting were sketchy since Members were advised to keep the deliberations internal, one Senate Democratic aide said.

But sources said the Thursday conversation was lively, with several Members speaking for and against the proposal.

The most endangered chairmen should the caucus eliminate the long-held seniority system include Finance Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), Banking Chairman Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin (Iowa). Ironically, Harkin has been a proponent of voting for chairmanships.

Baucus and Johnson would be vulnerable to a challenge because of their centrist views, and Baucus has been seen by many Members as too willing to compromise with Republicans. Members and aides have said Harkin has a reputation as an ineffective leader, particularly when he led the last farm bill rewrite as Agriculture chairman.

Another chairman whose gavel would be vulnerable is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).  He caucuses with Democrats, but after he campaigned vigorously for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, the caucus voted to allow him to keep his chairmanship.

One Democratic leadership aide said the proposed changes have more to do with frustration with Lieberman and Baucus than some of the other chairmen.

Cardin gave the presentation in favor of electing chairmen by popular vote, according to sources. Cardin’s spokeswoman declined to comment on the meeting.

Others, like Brown, left the meeting with a sense that there was still a chance for a vote in the caucus on the issue.

A spokeswoman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed that, saying “conversations are ongoing.”

But knowledgeable sources said the issue is likely dead for this Congress, given the large split within the caucus over the proposal.

“I don’t see huge momentum behind it,” one Democratic aide said.

During the leadership meeting, sources said, Reid urged those present to oppose the measure; however, he did not repeat those sentiments during the caucus meeting that afternoon.

Even if supporters choose to try to push the matter to a vote, several sources said it would likely fail because of the divergent views.

The changes to internal caucus rules will be dealt with after the Senate recess.

Traditionally, both parties have operated under a system where chairmen are chosen by seniority, leaving junior Members to wait years and sometimes decades before chairing a major panel.

Although Republican committee members vote individually on their chairmen, it is rare for popularity to trump seniority.

In addition to alienating newer Members, this system can present other problems, such as elderly chairmen hanging onto positions long after they are able to fulfill their duties.

In the past 15 years, then-Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and then-Armed Services Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) bowed to pressure to step down because of their age and health. 

Members of the classes of 2006 and 2008 have expressed impatience with the seniority system and have been eager to get their hands on gavels so they can influence legislation.

The reform effort is a part of a broader push by Members who were elected in recent cycles to reform both internal caucus and Senate rules to equalize the stature of Democratic Members and make the chamber more “efficient.”

In the last Congress, Reid made an effort to give subcommittee gavels to 2006 class Members in particular, but tighter ratios during the 112th Congress may force some of those Members to step down from panels.

Republicans and some senior Democrats have criticized some of the changes, saying they dilute the power of the minority party and make the Senate too much like the House.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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