Edwards, Cantwell Swap Panel Seats

Posted January 14, 2003 at 6:32pm

With Senate leaders in the final stages of negotiating a committee organizing resolution, Democrats handed out their panel assignments Tuesday, seeking to make the most of Senators’ home-state political prospects despite a bad electoral result in November.

While funding for committees was still being hashed out in contentious negotiations, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle(D-S.D.) had already reached an agreement on the size and party ratios of committees, an arrangement that required a slight downsizing by Democrats to make way for the new one-seat GOP majorities on the panels.

The most intriguing maneuver by Democrats — and the one with the most profound potential political ramifications — was a trade-off between Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the two most junior members of Judiciary in the 107th Congress. Cantwell holds a six-month advantage in seniority over Edwards on the panel.

To obtain a Republican majority on the committee, which will now be made up of 10 GOP Senators and nine Democrats, Daschle had to boot one Senator off Judiciary. But Edwards, a trial lawyer by training, is running for president and has already used high-profile judicial nomination fights, particularly the Democrats’ successful blocking of Judge Charles Pickering’s bid for a circuit court seat, to gain national attention.

With a Supreme Court nomination fight increasingly likely in the summer, Judiciary is expected to be an even more important perch for Edwards and his national ambitions. Instead of giving up Judiciary, Edwards agreed to vacate his seat on Commerce, Science and Transportation in favor of Cantwell, who was happy to make the best of a bad situation. Faced with the choice, Cantwell chose Commerce because it carries jurisdiction over critical issues to her home-state constituencies, including aviation (the Boeing Co. has a major presence in Washington) and high-tech issues affecting Microsoft Co.

“It just worked out well for what Senator Cantwell and Senator Edwards are interested in,” said Jed Lewison, spokesman for Cantwell. “Everyone is pleased with the way things worked out.”

Several other Democrats were also faced with losing out on committee slots because of their new minority status. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who gained a spot on Armed Services after Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) bolted the GOP in June 2001 and gave Democrats the majority, had to give up that prized “super A” committee. Armed Services, Finance, Foreign Relations and Appropriations are regarded as “super A” panels, and Senators must get waivers to serve on two of those committees — something Bingaman, also on Finance, received from Daschle 18 months ago.

In some cases, lost seats on one panel were tempered by the gain of a position on another, something made possible by the fact that four Democratic Senators did not return for new terms: former Sens. Max Cleland (Ga.) and Jean Carnahan (Mo.), who lost re-election battles; Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who quit his race after prospects for re-election dimmed; and Paul Wellstone (Minn.), who died in a plane crash on Oct. 25.

Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), for example, lost his seat on Environment and Public Works, a big setback to his prospects for delivering pork as the five-year highway authorization bill will be handled this Congress. But he gained a Foreign Relations seat — a spot made available because Torricelli and Wellstone both served on the panel in the 107th.

Despite post-election Republican rhetoric that the committees had grown too large, none of the panels was actually shrunk in terms of overall membership. Appropriations, for example, remains the largest committee with 29 Senators, although this year it will have 15 Republicans and 14 Democrats instead of the reverse partisan ratio in the past Congress.

With a deal on committee organization looking to be so close at hand, both sides dug in Tuesday for the final phase of negotiations, which appear to hinge solely on funding percentages for the majority and minority.

After initially signaling they wanted to claim two-thirds of all committee funds, Republicans dramatically scaled back their demands this week. Senior Democratic and GOP aides said Republicans have agreed to give a 51-49 split on funding for salaries for committee staff, assuring that no Democratic staff would need to be fired to recoup costs. In return, however, Republicans sought to increase the amount of administrative funds that are traditionally allotted to the majority party. Usually, an additional 5 percent of funding is given to the majority party on panels, strictly for administrative purposes such as career nonpartisan staff who handle clerical work.

A senior Democratic aide said Republicans wanted to more than double the amount of administrative funds and leave all of them under the control of the majority, something Democrats were hesitant to allow. Senior Democratic and GOP aides said this would in effect allow Republicans to control about 57 percent of all committee funds.

Just as important as the percentage of funds, however, was the nature of how the funding deal was handled. Daschle said he wanted the funding deal to be spelled out in letter form, with the signatures of himself and Frist as well as the top Republican and Democrat on the Rules and Administration and Appropriations committees. He also asked that the letter be referenced in the committee organizing resolution that is eventually passed on the Senate floor, a change from Frist’s current proposal that merely outlines the committee sizes and new assignments.

Democrats appear to fear that unless the funding percentages are set down in writing, individual GOP chairmen will try to back away from the 51-49 deal on salaries.

Republicans noted that actual funding percentages for committees won’t be etched into stone until the end of February, when the chamber must pass a new two-year funding measure for committees. They argued that Daschle was demonstrating a lack of trust in Frist in his very first negotiation with the new GOP leader, calling it an unsenatorial move from Daschle.

The senior GOP aide suggested Democratic ranking members were pushing too far if they wanted a funding percentage laid out in writing, saying a handshake agreement between the two leaders should suffice.

“Their word to each other has to mean something,” he said.