Term Limits Don’t Oust Old Bulls

Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:47pm

The 110th Congress was supposed to be the end of the line for many powerful Senate GOP chairmen, but their minority status has given some a lifeline as the top Republicans on several of the chamber’s panels.

For instance, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would have reached the party’s self-imposed six-year limit as chairman of the Finance Committee at the close of this year, but he now has two and a half years left to serve as the panel’s ranking member and another two as chairman if Republicans retake the Senate in the next few election cycles.

Senate GOP rules allow chairmen who have not served a full six years to serve another six as the ranking member.

Grassley is not the only Republican whose seniority has been extended by the Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2006.

Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs ranking member Richard Shelby (Ala.), Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (Okla.), Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (Ind.), Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins (Maine) and Small Business and Entrepreneurship ranking member Olympia Snowe (Maine) all took over as chairmen of their respective panels in January 2003. If Republicans had not lost the majority, they would be nearing the end of their terms.

Instead, they have another four years in their positions following this Congress, and they can still reclaim the chairmanship for another two years if the GOP pulls an upset on the Democrats this year or in the future.

“It’s obviously a positive for the ranking members, but it’s also a positive for the party in that the ranking members are bringing the experience and the leadership qualities they developed as chairmen to the [negotiating] table,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide.

Grassley has less time to serve in the ranking member capacity because he served previously as the ranking member on the panel in the 107th Congress.

He started out as chairman in 2001 until the June Democratic takeover of the chamber —a result of then-Sen. Jim Jeffords’ (I-Vt.) departure from the Republican Party. Senate Republicans discounted the brief service of those chairmen, and their chairman “clocks” restarted when Republicans took back control of the Senate in 2003.

The remaining Senate GOP ranking members have either served only two years as chairman or began their service atop their respective panels as ranking members last year.

Meanwhile, the retirement of Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) puts Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) in line to follow in the footsteps of her father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski (Alaska), as the top GOP Senator on that committee starting in January 2009.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) would be next in line, but he is also retiring this year following his involvement in a Minneapolis airport bathroom sex sting. Even if Craig were not retiring, Senate GOP leaders stripped him of his seniority on committees.

To take the Energy slot, Murkowski will likely have to give up her top spot on the Indian Affairs panel. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is her probable replacement. He is behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in seniority, but McCain is unlikely to relinquish his perch atop the Armed Services Committee if his presidential bid is unsuccessful.