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Former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s Seniority In Debate

The possibility of former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) coming back to the Senate with his seniority intact could spur tension within the Democratic caucus, but it’s a price some Members are willing to pay to help keep their majority.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), for example, said he is open to discussion on the issue.

“From the point of view of trying to deal with people who have a break in service, I can understand making certain accommodations,” Cardin said. “I would certainly want to listen to the leaders recommendations on that regard.”

One Member who likely would take issue with the idea of Kerrey coming back with full seniority — if it were to happen — is Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

“I am not familiar with it, but I assume that maybe retroactively [Senate Democratic leaders] would reconfigure my situation,” Lautenberg said Tuesday of the possibility of Kerrey returning to the Senate with his seniority.

With Kerrey reconsidering his earlier decision to forgo a race in Nebraska, sources have said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) might try to persuade Members of the Democratic Conference to restore Kerrey’s seniority on committees and possibly in the Senate if he runs and wins. It was a deal Lautenberg sought when he came out of retirement in 2002 to revive the party’s prospects of holding the Senate seat that Robert Torricelli (D) stepped down from amid corruption charges. Lautenberg first served in the Senate from 1982 to 2001.

“I came in and I got nothing” regarding seniority, Lautenberg said. “I got a chance to put my own money into a race where we were 22 points behind, and three days after I said I would run, I was up 11 [points] for a seat that was gone,” Lautenberg said. Rank-and-file opposition to restoring Lautenberg’s seniority prevented leaders from accommodating him at the time, but the New Jerseyan was promised seats on his old committees, such as Appropriations, as soon as a position opened up.

Lautenberg, who is currently ranked 46th in overall Senate seniority, according to Roll Call’s seniority list for the 112th Congress, said he previously outranked Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who is ranked ninth and entered the Senate in 1983.

Lautenberg was more senior than Bingaman because he was appointed to the seat shortly before Bingaman took office. 

Lautenberg said he would welcome Kerrey back, noting he would be “a vital part of the insurance policy” in helping the Democrats keep their majority in the Senate.

Talk of how Kerrey would fit back into the Senate was sparked by the news Monday that he is seriously reconsidering whether to run for his former seat. However, he has yet to officially announce his candidacy, and the filing deadline for new candidates is Thursday.

Democrats appear to be going to great lengths to recruit Kerrey, and several Senators called Kerrey on Tuesday to encourage him to run, according to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who also reached out to the former Senator.

“I was urging him to do it; hopefully he’ll do it,” Carper said.

Reid acknowledged that he has spoken with Kerrey but declined to provide any other details.

“There is a lot of speculation out there; No. 1 is whether Bob is going to be running,” Reid said at a press conference Tuesday. “I have had, over the last several weeks, lots of conversations with Bob Kerrey, and none of those am I going to talk about here.”

Senate Democrats were hopeful Kerrey returns for the sake of the majority. And despite the possibility of getting surpassed in seniority and possibly having to give up some perks, they believed he could be accommodated, or at least that it was an issue that could be worked out, if he wins.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, said, “I loved serving with him, and when he comes back, we will worry about” seniority, she said. “Right now, we have to keep control, and we have to get him in the race.” 

During his Senate career, Kerrey was a member of the Finance and Agriculture committees. He also served on the Appropriations Committee from 1989 to 1996, and he was vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee from 1995 to 1999.

“Those kinds of issues are always complicated, so if this weren’t complicated, I’d be surprised,” Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable.”

A senior Congressional aide said he expects most Members to see the bigger picture.

“Chairmanships are at stake, committee budgets are at stake; I think a lot of Members will take the long view,” the aide said.

A Member returning with full seniority is more the exception than the rule, the aide added.

In 2009, Democrats bristled at the suggestion that Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), whom Reid persuaded to switch parties, would retain his seniority.

On the day in April 2009 that Specter, who eventually lost the Democratic primary, announced his switch, Reid indicated Specter would keep his seniority. But days later, amid blowback from Democrats who were angry that they might be bumped behind a new member of the party, Reid said decisions about seniority would “be up to the caucus.” Specter was deemed the most junior Democrat on the committees on which he served, but Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) gave up a Judiciary subcommittee gavel for him.

Similarly, Reid gave up his claim on the Environment and Public Works gavel in 2001 after former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the GOP to become an Independent and caucus with Democrats.

Correction: Feb. 29, 2012

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was involved in negotiating Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) return to seniority. He was not. The story also incorrectly stated why Lautenberg was more senior than Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). It was because Lautenberg was appointed to the seat shortly before Bingaman took office.

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