Democrats’ rule change could spark Senate Appropriations shakeup

Junior Democrats would get to lead subcommittees if those spots are now also taken up by full committee leaders

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., says his fix would result in "sharing the wealth" within the Democratic caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., says his fix would result in "sharing the wealth" within the Democratic caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 10, 2020 at 2:13pm

A sweeping caucus rule change adopted by Senate Democrats this week would upend the traditional seniority structure on some of the most powerful committees.

The new rule says that the top Democrats on "A" committees can't also be subcommittee chairpersons or ranking members until more junior members of that panel get a chance to claim a subcommittee, in order of their seniority within the broader Democratic Caucus. The rule change was described by Senate Democratic aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While "A" committees cover most of the Senate's panels, the impact is likely to be most acute on Appropriations, where subcommittees play a major role in drafting "must-pass" legislation every year. The panels have responsibility for carving up some $1.4 trillion in federal agency budgets and are considered some of the most plum assignments on Capitol Hill.

In practice, the new rule, sponsored by Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., may not lead to a big subcommittee shuffle on Appropriations next year. But the broader push to spread responsibilities around the caucus has already resulted in a vacancy at Defense appropriations, since Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., is stepping down from that panel to focus on his role as top Democrat on Judiciary.

Other top appropriators who could potentially be affected include:

  • Vermont's Patrick J. Leahy, who's currently ranking member on the full Appropriations Committee as well as the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. 
  • Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions as well as the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
  • Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who's ranking member on Armed Services as well as the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee.

Currently, Democratic appropriators who don't have a subcommittee leadership position include Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin; Joe Manchin III of West Virginia; and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

Baldwin was already expected to move up and get a subcommittee because of Tom Udall's pending retirement; the New Mexico Democrat is top Democrat on Interior-Environment.

Manchin, the most senior of the three within the broader caucus, is already the top Democrat on Energy and Natural Resources, so he'd need to wait in line. That means Van Hollen is in prime position to become a subcommittee ranking member, or "cardinal," if Democrats take the Senate after the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs.

And if the size of the panel expands, that means one or more additional committee members would be added on the Democratic side who'd be able to put their names in for a subcommittee leadership role.

“My interest has been in getting more members, you know, sharing, to make sure that we’re sharing the wealth with respect to committee and subcommittee leadership,” Murphy said Wednesday.

The Connecticut Democrat is the ranking member on Legislative Branch appropriations, but he could vacate that slot and get a bigger subcommittee under any reshuffling.

There's been no word yet from potentially affected panel members on where they may end up. Traditionally, among Senate Democrats decisions about who gets appropriations subcommittees have been made by the top Democrat on the full committee.

An aide to Leahy said he's been focused on wrapping up fiscal 2021 appropriations and coronavirus relief and hasn't given subcommittee slots much thought yet.

The rule change caps off weeks of debate among Senate Democrats after Durbin announced he would seek the top Democratic post on Judiciary after Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would step aside.

Durbin’s announcement frustrated some of his colleagues given how many top caucus positions he was in line for. Durbin later said that he would be willing to give up his role on the Defense subcommittee, which determines nearly $700 billion in annual Pentagon spending or about half of federal discretionary funds.

It's not yet clear, however, if any junior appropriators who don't lead a full committee somewhere else will demand to oust anyone. It's not mandatory under Murphy's rule change, and junior senators run some risk of angering the more senior members who lead other powerful panels — or the Appropriations Committee itself.

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