Hawkings

Parsing New Senate Committee Rosters for Future Career Moves

Senators with 2020 ambitions, or 2018 re-election worries, hope for help from new assignments

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have both landed plum committee assignments that could bolster their 2020 presidential prospects. (Bill Clark/Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photos)

There’s little doubt about committees being a stronger force for shaping legislation in the House than in the Senate. That is why so many lobbyists and lawmakers had their ears pressed to the door Wednesday while the Republican Steering Committee started filling openings on the most influential House panels. 

But when it comes to shaping national political careers, it’s the Senate where such assignments often represent the biggest value. That is why everyone already pondering the next Democratic presidential campaign, and before that, the senatorial balance of power after the 2018 midterms, has been parsing the committee rosters finalized this week.

In the House, committee plums are given out by the leadership — augmented by a few voices from the rank and file — after complex calculations about partisan loyalties, demographic diversity, future re-election prospects and fundraising prowess. (This year’s luckiest GOP and Democratic winners are supposed to be revealed by the end of the week.) With 435 members and only a relative handful of openings on prestigious panels after each election, however, most members accept the notion they must spend their legislative careers on panels that rarely make the headlines.

But in the Senate, where seniority remains a powerful internal force, the members who’ve been around a while generally claim the meatiest pickings and the newcomers are left to scrounge for the best of the rest. Still, since there are only 100 people to fill four times as many committee spots, each senator is almost guaranteed an assignment to one of the most powerful rooms.

And so career management for the savviest senators, those seeking to minimize re-election troubles or polish their résumé for a national campaign, often includes a notable committee trade-up at the start of a new Congress.

Hillary Clinton, to cite a famous example, got herself onto Armed Services in her third year as a New York senator, in 2003, allowing her to augment her social policy expertise with bona fides in military and international affairs in plenty of time for her first presidential run.

Stepping up

This time, the most conspicuous upgrades were made by first-term senators who were on the long list of potential Clinton running mates last summer — but got passed over in part because of a lack of foreign policy experience — and who are both undeniably eyeing the top of the ticket for themselves in 2020. 

Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts decided to join Armed Services, readily ceding a spot on Energy and Natural Resources.

Cory Booker jumped at an opening on Foreign Relations, trading away his seat on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The postings will afford plenty of experience allowing both to claim, as plausibly as any presidential candidate who comes from Capitol Hill, that they’re “ready to be commander in chief on Day One.”

Both committees offer substantive perquisites, including access to special classified briefings and invitations on high-profile trips to global hotspots, that bring not only cachet but also the opportunity to gain lasting expertise. In the short term, they are platforms for speaking out on every issue involving U.S. international policy, starting in the coming days with the confirmations of Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson to be secretary of State and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon.

Two other senators with national reputations, but who have placed their higher aspirations on hold at least through 2020, also switched committees.

Republican Marco Rubio took an opening on Appropriations, an ideal venue for attending to Florida’s parochial spending needs after his long stretch attending to his presidential quest.

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine secured a spot on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP, a place to strengthen his domestic policy chops after spending several years focused on his work at Armed Services and Foreign Affairs — and punching a ticket that helped him secure the vice presidential nod last summer.

One senator actually took something of a demotion in an effort to ease his path for a promotion: Jeff Sessions of Alabama picked a lowly seat on Agriculture instead of keeping his No. 3 GOP spot on Judiciary, thereby avoiding the untenable awkwardness of remaining on the committee that will take first pass on his contentious nomination for attorney general.

Vulnerable incumbents

Two of the biggest panel upgrades were executed by Democrats near the top of the party’s 2018 re-election worry list, in part because their states voted so decisively for Donald Trump.

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III snagged a seat on Appropriations, a committee his constituents know well because the state’s legendary Sen. Robert C. Byrd was its bring-home-the-billions chairman for years.

And Missouri’s Claire McCaskill landed at Finance, the committee that writes tax and social safety net legislation, after new Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York made room for her by giving up his own seat.

All the shuffling by the senior senators didn’t leave much left over for the seven newcomers, and only one of them scored an especially rich committee jackpot: John Kennedy snagged spots on Judiciary, Banking, Budget and Appropriations — that last assignment coming his way because Louisiana’s other GOP senator, Bill Cassidy, gave up that seat for an opening at Finance.

Kennedy will see plenty of fellow freshman Chris Van Hollen who also secured seats on Banking, Budget and Appropriations — a heavy workload (but perhaps a consolation prize) to go along with the Marylander’s assignment to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the potentially enervating 2018 election cycle.

Indiana Republican Todd Young, a former House Ways and Means member, and New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former governor, were the two freshmen named to the HELP panel as it sets about refashioning a replacement to the 2010 health care law.

The premier assignment for Kamala Harris, previously California’s attorney general, was Select Intelligence — another committee that can provide foreign policy seasoning for a senator seen as a potential national candidate down the road.

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