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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.