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Power shift, return to limelight in store for Senate Budget

Whitehouse says Sanders could decide to move on in January, may "have a better offer from other committees"

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building on October 15.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee executive business meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building on October 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL)

The Senate Budget Committee could be in store for a leadership shakeup next year with major policy implications under an electoral scenario that many prognosticators say is increasingly likely: a Democratic sweep in November.

Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist who became the committee’s ranking member in 2015, could decide to move on in January, according to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

“I think he’s a strong and passionate voice for more income equality, and he just may very well have a better offer from other committees,” Whitehouse told CQ Roll Call. The Rhode Island Democrat, who joined the Budget panel in 2007 along with Sanders, would “conceivably” be next in line, Whitehouse said.

Sanders’ office did not return multiple requests for comment. But the progressive stalwart has the seniority on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to potentially leapfrog Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., for instance.

Sanders is a passionate advocate for heading off climate change and limiting fossil fuels, while Manchin hails from an oil, gas and coal-producing state where views on energy policy aren’t in line with many on the left.

Manchin spokesman Sam Runyon told CQ Roll Call flatly that his boss will be the top Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources next year, however.

Another possibility for Sanders involves several other dominoes falling, including the possible resignation of Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., from the top slot on the Judiciary Committee.

Patty Murray of Washington could make room for Sanders at the helm of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where he could pursue other top priorities such as expanding health insurance, student debt relief and a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Murray could potentially get a very soft landing — the Appropriations Committee gavel. That would require the powerful spending panel’s current top Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, to move back to Judiciary in Feinstein’s place. However, Helen Hare, an aide to Murray, said Thursday that Murray “would want to be chair of the HELP Committee” if Democrats take control of the Senate. Leahy already spent two decades as chairman or ranking member on Judiciary and has said he’s perfectly happy to remain the top Democrat on Appropriations.

“I’d kind of like to try being chairman,” Leahy told CQ Roll Call last month. But that was before calls from progressive groups for Feinstein to step down, and this week Leahy said decisions on committee leadership positions would be up to the party’s leadership and steering committee.

Whoever gets the Budget slot could be primed to hold considerable sway over the policy agenda that a potential President Joe Biden tries to implement.

The Budget chairmanship would mean, in one sense, a 180-degree turn for Whitehouse, who has a history of dismissing his own panel’s work.

At a hearing in October 2015, he called the committee “preposterous and meaningless.” In October 2017, Whitehouse said the Budget panel had become a “nullity” when it comes to fiscal policy. “We don’t do anything in this committee,” Whitehouse added at a January 2018 hearing.

By the same token, Whitehouse has labored harder than many on the panel to advance changes to the budget process that would enhance the panel’s clout, working in bipartisan fashion with Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo.

Turning of the worm?

Whitehouse was prescient in another respect as the panel was marking up the fiscal 2018 budget resolution in October 2017, when he acknowledged the power of the fast-track reconciliation process.

That’s the ability to bypass the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster hurdle under certain conditions, which the Democrats used to pass large swaths of the 2010 health care law and Republicans used to pass their 2017 tax overhaul. Neither passed with a single minority party vote in either chamber.

“The one thing we do is this reconciliation critter,” Whitehouse said at the 2017 budget markup, warning Republicans that “one day the worm will turn.”

That worm could surface as soon as next year.

Inside Elections’ Nathan L. Gonzales projects that Democrats will have a net gain of four to six Senate seats for a narrow majority. House Democrats are poised to pick up 10 to 20 seats, according to his latest projection. And as battleground state polling currently points to, Gonzales expects Democratic nominee Biden will defeat President Donald Trump.

In addition to reconciliation, which could be critical if party leaders shy away from dumping the legislative filibuster, the Budget committees will be in charge of setting total discretionary spending after being largely cut out for the past decade.

The 2011 deficit reduction law and ensuing two-year budget deals to get around its austere spending limits superseded anything the Budget panels would have done in the annual budget resolution. The budget blueprint also could be used to signal long-term policy on health care, defense, taxes, entitlement programs, climate and infrastructure spending.

“Show us your budget, show us your values,” as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., likes to say.

It won’t be easy even under unified control, if that’s what occurs. House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told CQ Roll Call in late September that drafting a fiscal 2022 budget resolution will be an incredibly challenging process given massive deficits and divergent beliefs within the party about taxes and spending.

“It will never be as difficult to put together a budget resolution as it will be next year regardless of the partisan composition of the government,” Yarmuth said.

Fearing the Bern

In 2014 when Democrats controlled the Senate, some party lawmakers were apprehensive about the prospect of Sanders chairing the Budget Committee. They worried he might write a budget resolution too far to the left of mainstream views among Senate Democrats.

Those concerns were partially allayed when Democrats lost control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, Sanders replaced Murray, who was Budget chairwoman at the time. Murray then took the ranking Democrat position on HELP where she continues to serve.

Sanders’ personal policy preferences aren’t necessarily the same as Biden’s, though the onetime presidential primary rivals have collaborated on the party platform.

The two differ on policies such as “Medicare for All” and a Green New Deal, for instance, which Biden has not embraced, while Sanders’ campaign proposed dramatically higher taxes than Biden has suggested. Sanders has also called for slashing the annual defense budget by 10 percent and directing the savings to education, health care and anti-poverty programs.

Whitehouse may not have the star power and name recognition of Sanders, but he’s no slouch when it comes to left-leaning views, including on climate change. He’s proposed a carbon tax designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half over a decade and cost emitters $2.3 trillion during that time, with the proceeds directed to households and state climate programs.

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Whitehouse is known for his “Time to Wake Up” floor speech, where he stands in front of a poster with a picture of the Earth as seen from space and the words “time to wake up” while discussing the issue. His first question to Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought during his confirmation hearing in June was “tell me about climate change.”

He’s also sought to expand clean energy tax credits while revoking tax breaks for the wealthiest households.

Whoever ends up as the top Senate Budget Democrat, there will also be a new partner across the aisle as Enzi is retiring at the end of this Congress. His Republican successor will likely be Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, or possibly Ron Johnson of Wisconsin if Graham loses his tight reelection bid next month.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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