Senate Democrats reject two-year delay of panel seniority rule

The new rule aims to more evenly distribute subcommittee gavels

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is seen in the Senate subway on Dec. 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is seen in the Senate subway on Dec. 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 4, 2021 at 7:37pm, Updated at 8:46pm

Senate Democrats on Thursday chose to move ahead with a caucus rule change that would more evenly distribute subcommittee chairmanships, despite efforts from more senior members to delay it by two years.

Democrats cast ballots in private throughout the afternoon, with the majority of the 50 Democratic senators voting to reject the delay, according to a Senate Democratic source and a person familiar with the vote, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The debate about a delay came just two months after the caucus voted to adopt the rule proposed by Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., that said the top Democrats on panels considered "A" committees shouldn't get to also hold a subcommittee gavel until more junior members have an opportunity.

The proposal voted down Thursday would have delayed the change until the 118th Congress, according to Thomas R. Carper, D-Del. He and other critics of the so-called Murphy rule were seeking another avenue to ensure younger members don't get left out of key panel roles: expanding the number of subcommittees.

“I'd like for us to hit the pause button for two years on the Murphy rule and encourage our leadership to ensure that everybody has a gavel,” Carper said before the vote. “If you think about all the committees and all the subcommittees we have, that's not a hard thing to do.”

If needed, Carper said Democrats could “carve out an extra subcommittee to make sure we meet that goal.”

Murphy acknowledged the pushback on Wednesday but continued to defend the rule, arguing “it makes sense to distribute power and responsibilities in the caucus a little bit more than we do now without blowing up the seniority system.”

The debate came amid pushback from senior senators, including Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy. The Murphy rule could remove Leahy as the top Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee.

Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, might be elbowed out as chairwoman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations subcommittee. And Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed could lose his role as the chairman of the Transportation-HUD subcommittee.

For his part, Carper — chairman of Environment and Public Works — could lose his ability to lead the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, part of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Leahy has not been shy about his frustration with the change, saying that he would hold certain subcommittee budget hearings at the full committee level instead of the subcommittee level. Leahy specifically said Secretary of State Antony Blinken would be one of the administration officials to testify in front of the full committee, if the Murphy rule went into effect.

On Wednesday, Leahy told CQ Roll Call that appropriations subcommittees have “got to have people in there who know what they're doing.” He declined to discuss the renewed caucus deliberations Thursday. "I've been here for 47 years, and I have never once discussed anything in the caucus in 47 years," Leahy said.

Reed also declined to comment on the discussions.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.