A Chairmanship Wish List for Senate Democrats

Posted September 9, 2004 at 3:47pm

If Democrats regain control of the Senate in November, one of their biggest prizes will be the power to wield the 20 gavels that go to the chamber’s committee chairmen.

If control shifts, power will switch from some of the Senate’s most reliable conservatives to many of its staunchest liberals. These potential Democratic chairmen would be the point men and women for a dramatically different agenda and would have the ability to either rein in a second Bush administration or protect a White House newly occupied by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

The chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would be Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a close Kerry ally, trading places with the current chairman, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is a friend of President Bush.

On the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — who despite his moderate profile has voted for all but one of Bush’s judicial nominees — would be denied his ascension to Judiciary chairman and would instead watch as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) runs the next round of hearings on Supreme Court nominees.

“It’s hard to believe what the difference would be,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Collectively, the group of potential chairmen is made up mostly of the same Senators who chaired their respective panels for the 18-month interlude in 2001 and 2002 when the Democrats ran the chamber. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), now the ranking member on Governmental Affairs, jokingly referred to his 18-month chairmanship as “the golden days.”

With just that brief taste of chairmanhood — a tenure largely overshadowed by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the legislative reaction to them — the Democrats are anxious to reclaim their gavels and set their own agenda.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of Armed Services, said that the potential chairmen were not driven by personal motives or the access to power, but rather by a desire to change the current course of policy.

“For me, it’s not a personal issue,” Levin said. “Everyone feels so strongly.”

Indeed, the shadow chairmen are willing to stake their political money where their desires lead them. Levin was among a handful of ranking members who by early this year had met the $100,000 dues imposed by Corzine and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) for donations to the DSCC.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), who has been hosting fundraisers at his grand home, kicked in $150,000 from his campaign account to the DSCC.

All told, the group of potential chairmen had by last spring given more than $1 million to the DSCC. They also helped out in other fundraising efforts that veteran members of the Caucus had shied away from in the past. Kennedy, for instance, has given $30,000 to the DSCC from his political action committee but raised more than $1.5 million for the campaign committee.

“You’ll find they are tremendously engaged,” Corzine said.

Corzine said he makes the committee chairmanships a part of most fundraising pitches to prospective donors. In the 2002 cycle, the DSCC even sent out a direct-mail pitch, signed by Lieberman, that specifically touted the Democratic chairmen and how different the Senate would be if the GOP wielded those gavels.

“Real policy is made at the committee level,” Lieberman wrote then. “That’s where the details of legislation are worked out, priorities are set and deals are cut.”

The flip side is that Republicans have periodically sought to scare their base with the prospect of Democratic chairmen taking over. Central to this argument is the potential ascension of Kennedy, a longstanding villain for the GOP.

In Bush’s nomination-acceptance speech, the president not only took a direct shot at Kerry but also fired a barely disguised volley at Kennedy when he noted that the cost of Kerry’s proposed programs, according to GOP calculations, would be $2 trillion. “That’s a lot, even for a Senator from Massachusetts,” he said.

The night before Bush’s speech, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) took direct aim at Kerry by linking him with Kennedy in their opposition to GOP-backed military programs from the 1980s and ’90s.

“No pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often than the two Senators from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry,” Miller shouted to rousing applause. “Together, Kennedy-Kerry have opposed the very weapons system that won the Cold War and that is now winning the war on terror.”

But the potential new batch of chairmen is not limited to long-tenured Members like Kennedy. Some Democrats would have their first shot at ever being chairman, including Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), who could take over Small Business from Kerry if he wins and the Democrats claim the majority; Sen. Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), who is considered the most likely chairman of Veterans’ Affairs; Sen. Herb Kohl (Wis.), the likely chairman of Aging; and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who would probably assume the unenviable task of chairing the Ethics Committee.

Of course, the right to chair these committees could be delayed for a few months, or even denied outright, if strange machinations come into play after a Kerry victory. If Kerry wins and the Democrats end up with just 50 Senate seats, Kerry would have to surrender his seat to an appointee of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), at least until a special election in the spring of 2005.

Under either scenario, Democrats looking to reclaim the majority would need to place their hopes on the “blue”-leaning Bay State choosing a Democrat to fill the seat.