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The decisions by Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Tom Harkin of Iowa to forgo taking over the Appropriations Committee in favor of keeping their current committee gavels could be a sign that the once-vaunted panel is losing its clout.
Both senators earlier this week waived their seniority on the panel, allowing the third-ranking Democrat on the committee — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. — to take over after the death Monday of Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.
The unusual situation is evidence to some Hill watchers that the spending panel’s stature is waning — given the recent political focus on cutting spending, the now-routine inability of lawmakers to fund the government by the statutory deadline of Oct. 1 each year and the moratorium on earmarks that Republicans have successfully imposed on Congress.
“Budget politics now dominate, but budget politics are driven by party politics and led by party leaders and the president,” said Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Appropriators play a supporting, not a leading, role in that movie.”
Harkin, who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, said he has been frustrated by the inability to move his spending bill in recent years. That measure has been particularly hamstrung because of a disagreement with the Republican-led House over funding for the 2010 health care overhaul.
Harkin said the decision to take a pass on the post, traditionally viewed as more powerful than the HELP Committee, had much to do with his life’s work.
“I just had to think about who I am and where I am,” the Iowan said in a brief interview.
“I’m 73. I’ve been here a long time, and I’m at that point in my life where I don’t feel I have to do what others want me to do or expect me to do,” Harkin said. “I want to do what I love, and I love my committee. I love the issues we deal with, and I’m still on approps.”
He expressed optimism that Mikulski will be able to restore some semblance of regular order to the panel’s workings.
“I know Barbara Mikulski, and I know one thing. She is determined, and she’s a great leader, and if there is one person that could get the Appropriations Committee back up and functioning as it should, it’s Barbara Mikulski,” Harkin said.