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Senate Democrats largely keep gavel rules intact; House caucus may vote next week

Senators will continue to chair committees while serving in leadership

Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., confer during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March.
Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., confer during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats will largely keep their caucus rules intact for the next Congress after rejecting a proposal on Thursday that would have meant members of leadership could not also wield committee gavels.

House Democrats, meanwhile, delayed some votes on internal rules changes until next week.

Changes adopted were largely technical in nature, according to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Maryland Democrat involved in overseeing the process. Cardin said the rules would be published on the internet, in what amounts to a new level of transparency for Senate Democrats.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island had sought to restrict members of Democratic leadership from also chairing committees, a move that would have affected Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in the next Congress.

Cardin said the caucus did vote to eliminate the assistant leader position and establish a deputy conference secretary position. That reshuffling will effectively elevate Stabenow’s current position as chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will be vacating the assistant leader position after this Congress when she becomes president pro tempore.

Cardin said an amendment was withdrawn that would have tweaked the procedure for selecting subcommittee gavels. The procedure, championed by Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., allows for more junior members to pick subcommittees to chair before more senior members who also chair class “A” committees, the 12 panels considered the most high-priority.

It’s most relevant at Appropriations, where senators including Murray (the incoming Appropriations chair), Durbin and Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island get to claim gavels only after the more junior members pass on them.

House term limit sought

Across the Capitol, the House Democratic Caucus wrapped up two days of organizing meetings for next Congress, but votes on some proposed amendments to caucus rules were pushed off until next week.

One of the deferred votes is on a controversial amendment to add a six-year term limit for committee leaders, counting time served as chair and ranking member together.

The amendment is similar to a term limit House Republicans impose. The GOP rule also applies to subcommittee leaders, while the Democratic proposal would not.

Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, who is offering the amendment, said the vote will occur during Tuesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting.

Similar to Republicans’ rule, Foster’s proposal would allow Democrats wanting to serve longer than six years to request a waiver. But instead of the party’s Steering Committee making that call, as the GOP rule stipulates, the Foster proposal would have the full Democratic Caucus vote on requested waivers. Because of the waiver provision, Foster said his amendment isn’t a term limit for existing committee leaders but rather a “retention vote.”

“It would be the will of the caucus as to how often we grant these waivers. And it’s not clear,” he said. “I think one of the most impactful results of this proposal, if it’s passed, is that the committee staff would understand that their jobs depended on their boss passing a retention vote. And so that they would, I believe, be much more responsive to rank-and-file members than they currently might be in some cases.”

Foster said he has not been whipping the amendment, given that it’s a secret-ballot vote, but he noted, “I got a lot of support from unexpected quarters. And so it will be a very interesting vote.”

Push for floor votes

Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., is also expecting a vote Tuesday on his amendment to caucus rules that would require that bills widely backed by Democrats be marked up in committee and get floor votes — a proposal he says is motivated at least in part by a leadership decision not to take up his bill to expand Social Security benefits and shore up the program’s finances.

Larson’s amendment specifies that committee chairs shall mark up bills co-sponsored by the majority of Democrats and leadership shall bring bills cosponsored by two-thirds or more Democrats to the floor.

He acknowledged the amendment won’t have much effect next Congress with Democrats in the minority.

“It’s not going to be impressive for the Republicans,” he said, noting it’s a forward-looking change that acknowledges “government should be about the vitality of ideas.”

If the amendment had been in place this Congress, Larson’s Social Security bill, which is co-sponsored by 201 Democrats and one independent, would have met both thresholds to be marked up and brought to the floor. Larson, who chairs the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, said a committee markup was planned but that Democratic leadership pulled the plug.

“And I’ve never received a full explanation other than some of the staff in leadership saying, ‘Well, we’re not sure it has the votes. There are still other people that are skeptical,'” he said.

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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