Cochran Eyes Pot-Sweetener

Chair May Give Up Subcommittee

Posted February 28, 2005 at 6:23pm

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) will press Senate GOP appropriators this week to make a decision on whether to make their subcommittee jurisdictions more compatible with the House.

And in an attempt to sway Senators who have balked at making any changes to the current subcommittee structure, Cochran said he would weigh giving up his own chairmanship of the Homeland Security subcommittee in order to give other subcommittee chairmen more opportunities to gain plum slots.

“That’s an option I am considering, if it will help organize our committee,” Cochran said in an interview Monday.

A third meeting of Republicans on the Senate Appropriations panel had not yet been scheduled as of press time, but could come as early as this afternoon or Wednesday, and Cochran said he wanted to have the issue of subcommittee jurisdiction settled within the next two weeks.

Cochran said he would likely offer members a plan that would preserve 12 of the current 13 subcommittees within the Senate Appropriation panel. That would be a departure from the path followed by the House Appropriations Committee, which decided two weeks ago to scale back to 10 subcommittees by eliminating panels covering the District of Columbia, the legislative branch, and Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and independent agencies.

The VA-HUD panel’s far-ranging jurisdiction was then spread among the nine remaining House panels, while funding for the District was taken over by a new Transportation, Treasury, and Housing subcommittee. Funding for Congress’ internal functions was assumed by the full House panel.

In order to minimize problems conferencing spending bills with the House, Cochran appears to be leaning toward mimicking the House’s decision to dismantle VA-HUD. The D.C. and legislative branch subcommittees would likely function as they have traditionally in the Senate.

However, Cochran said he is “still working” on what to do with the VA-HUD subcommittee and has not made a final decision on whether to recommend its elimination.

Cochran said he had no plans to recommend that the Senate mirror the House’s decision to take approximately $36 billion in Defense Department accounts away from the Defense subcommittee and place them in a new military quality of life subcommittee encompassing the current military construction panel’s jurisdiction as well as the Veterans’ Affairs Department.

Even with a sweetener like Cochran’s Homeland Security gavel, it’s far from clear that the 14 rank-and-file members of the committee will want to make any changes, said a knowledgeable Senate GOP aide.

Though a contentious full committee vote on a restructuring plan is a possibility, Cochran said it is his goal to get all GOP members on board with a plan before moving forward.

“I’d like to be able to do it by unanimous consent,” Cochran said.

Cochran’s decision to entertain the notion of giving up the Homeland Security subcommittee gavel, while retaining the chairmanship of the full committee, appears aimed at satisfying the concerns of lower-ranking Senate subcommittee chairmen who stand to be pushed aside by more senior committee members in any reshuffling.

For example, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who could see his chairmanship of the VA-HUD panel vanish, could decide to take over Homeland Security, leaving other chairmanships unchanged.

Or if Bond were to take over a newly revamped Commerce, Justice, State and judiciary panel from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) or a new Transportation panel from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), either Gregg or Shelby could decide to take the coveted Homeland Security panel.

That could spare Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) from losing their current gavels over the Agriculture, military construction and D.C. panels, respectively, or it could give the three an opportunity for a more desirable subcommittee gavel, if Bond, Gregg and Shelby make other choices.

If Cochran decides to step aside, the chairmanship of either the D.C. or the legislative branch panels could be open to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), depending on which panel DeWine decided to chair.

Since the House Appropriations Committee and House GOP leadership made it clear that they planned to reorganize the panel with or without the Senate’s concurrence last month, Cochran has consistently said the Senate will need to make some changes to its subcommittees’ jurisdiction in order to avoid year-end omnibus spending bills.

“We’re not going to have an omnibus,” Cochran said flatly. “We’ll have individual appropriations bills.”

Cochran emphasized that the appropriations process has not yet been harmed by the stalemate between the House and Senate over committee structure. Indeed, Senate subcommittees, including VA-HUD, have held and have scheduled hearings on the president’s budget request over the past few weeks.

“We’re getting our work done,” Cochran said.