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Ensign’s Exit Opens Plum Panel Spots

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has some big decisions to make about how to dole out the sought-after committee slots that are currently held by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is set to resign May 3.

McConnell’s office has declined to comment on speculation that Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will replace Ensign on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which is popular both for its expansive policy jurisdiction and as an enviable perch from which to raise campaign cash. Isakson’s office also has remained quiet, with multiple phone messages requesting comment going unreturned.

Additional plum assignments — on the Budget, Commerce, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees — will become available when Ensign steps down. In addition, the Nevada Republican holds the ranking slot on the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet; the Finance Subcommittee on Health Care; and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs.

The Senate Republican Leader has sole discretion over filling single vacancies on committees for the party, according to Conference rules. McConnell’s office said Tuesday that no announcements regarding committee assignments are expected this week.

However, Republican lobbyists with Senate ties expect Isakson to get the nod on Finance.

“Isakson gets the Finance seat,” one GOP lobbyist said. Some Republican Senate aides also indicated that Isakson was likely to be selected, although others urged against jumping to conclusions.

The Georgia Republican would appear to fit at least some criteria. He was considered a frontrunner to land on Finance when assignments were made for the 112th Congress. It also helps that he is not a member of either the Appropriations or Armed Services committees — Republicans are generally allowed to serve on only one of those three committees.

Isakson, who won a second Senate term last year, serves on the Commerce, Foreign Relations and Veterans’ Affairs committees, as well as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

He is also vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, with which Ensign has been all too familiar.

The panel’s dogged investigation of Ensign is considered the prime reason the Nevadan decided to resign rather than serve out the final 20 months of his term. His political and fundraising support all but disappeared following a scandal related to an affair he had with the wife of his friend and then-aide, Doug Hampton, and Ensign announced this year that he would not seek re-election.

McConnell’s decision on committee assignments could depend on Ensign’s successor. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is expected to appoint Rep. Dean Heller (R) to replace Ensign by the end of this week.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) announced this month that she will run for the Senate seat in 2012, and a poll conducted this month on Berkley’s behalf showed her running even with Heller. Another poll released Tuesday by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling also found the two statistically tied.

Receiving at least one committee assignment that is important to Nevada and lucrative on the fundraising circuit could be helpful to Heller in any tough campaign. That fact is not likely to be lost on the politically minded McConnell, a former two-term chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Heller is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee and previously served on the Financial Services and Natural Resources panels. House Republican Conference rules do not allow Ways and Means members to serve on other committees.

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