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Delicate Negotiations Ahead Over Senate Committee Ratios, Seats

Kamala Harris and Chris Van Hollen will both want to retain seats

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer have some negotiating to do on the ratio of Republican and Democratic members of Senate committees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer have some negotiating to do on the ratio of Republican and Democratic members of Senate committees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With Republicans expanding their Senate majority by at least a seat in 2018, the scales of power will tip ever so slightly in the direction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

And whether or not Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith prevails in keeping her seat in the Republican column on Tuesday, there will be some closed-door debate over the ratios of Democrats to Republicans on committees through a traditionally opaque negotiation process.

A victory by former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy would change the math too.

In a one-seat majority chamber, Republicans have had a one-senator advantage on each standing committee. For McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, adjusting some committees will be easier than others.

It won’t take much work to swing the traditionally coveted Finance Committee more in the Republican direction, since Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Claire McCaskill of Missouri both lost their re-election bids.

But other committees get more complicated. The one getting the most attention is the Judiciary Committee, where the committee agenda under the expected incoming chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is likely to be a lightning rod for Democrats pondering presidential campaigns in 2020.

Several of those White House hopefuls already serve on the committee, though an effort to shrink the headcount would likely result in the most junior Democratic member, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, being forced to step aside.

That is unless a more senior member of the committee decided to take an appointment elsewhere, as The Washington Post explained.

After the election of Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama to replace appointed Republican Luther Strange, the committee ratios were adjusted to bring Democrats to within one seat of the GOP majority on panels where there was more of a gap. McConnell and Schumer chose the path of least resistance by adding Democratic seats to Finance and Judiciary (including Harris).

There was precedent for a one-seat margin in a 51-49 chamber, but with a two- or three-seat advantage, the numbers are more flexible.

More progressive Democrats have viewed Harris, a former state attorney general, as among their most effective questioners during committee hearings.

Another potential controversy could arise over the powerful Appropriations Committee, where keeping the status quo or an expansion would be needed to avoid unseating Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat  who is the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Van Hollen, who succeeded a senior appropriator and fellow Marylander in Barbara A. Mikulski, is the only representative from the national capital region on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While the negotiations over seats are conducted at the leadership level, a resolution to organize the Senate at the start of the new Congress in January technically must be adopted by the Senate, and while the organizing resolution is most often adopted by unanimous consent, it technically can be filibustered.

So it is entirely possible that both Harris and Van Hollen will stay in their respective posts.

The same is true of the resolutions that appoint members of the majority and minority parties to standing committees. Once the ratios are basically known, the real jockeying will begin for seats for new and existing members, with the Senate by and large operating as it always does: when seniority rules.

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