Power-sharing rules spark big Senate Appropriations realignment

Leahy loses foreign aid gavel, but will still run the full committee; Reed gives up transportation, housing funds oversight

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., saw his appropriations subcommittee gavel downsized. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., saw his appropriations subcommittee gavel downsized. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 12, 2021 at 12:25pm

Senate Appropriations Committee leaders on Friday announced subcommittee leaders and membership for the 117th Congress, including big changes in Democratic leadership that are the result of a new power-sharing rule.

The rule, which senior members of the party unsuccessfully tried to delay by two years, prevents chairs of so-called "A" committees from picking subcommittee leadership spots until all the committee's Democrats had an opportunity to pick up a gavel.

On Appropriations, that rule appears to have prevented full committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont from continuing as chairman of the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, and blocked Rhode Island's Jack Reed from claiming a gavel until after much more junior members.

Washington's Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was able keep her spot as the top Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations subcommittee, however.

In total, nine of the 12 subcommittees have new Democratic leaders.

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Delaware's Chris Coons will take over the State-Foreign Operations gavel from Leahy, moving from Financial Services. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a first-time gavel wielder, will take Financial Services in Coons' place.

Reed, who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, will still get an appropriations gavel, but at the Legislative Branch panel. That's a role typically reserved as the first subcommittee gavel an appropriator receives due to the panel's relatively small allocation, which was $5.3 billion this year.

Reed had to give up the top Democratic slot on Transportation-HUD — a panel that doled out $74.7 billion in fiscal 2021, not counting emergency funds. That role goes instead to Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who is also a full committee chair on Indian Affairs; since that isn't considered an "A" committee, however, the new Democratic rule didn't apply to him.

The new caucus rule is thanks to Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who successfully pushed it through late last year and beat back efforts by Leahy and others last week to delay it until the next Congress. Murphy now finds himself having moved up from Legislative Branch to the Homeland Security gavel, replacing Montana's Jon Tester at DHS.

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Tester got himself the biggest subcommittee of all: Defense, with jurisdiction over almost half of the roughly $1.4 trillion in discretionary funds doled out annually. That wasn't due to the Murphy rule, however, but because of a related shift that saw Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., relinquish Defense in order to continue as his party's whip as well as take the Judiciary Committee gavel.

Other new Democratic subcommittee chairs include Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin on Agriculture, replacing Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Merkley moved over to Interior-Environment, taking over for New Mexico's Tom Udall, now retired. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a new addition to the panel this year, will lead the Military Construction-VA subcommittee, an unusually high-profile role for a brand new committee member.

Leahy, Durbin, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III are the only three Democrats without subcommittee gavels.

Republicans also announced their ranking members on Friday, though they had fewer changes than Democrats.

Louisiana’s John Kennedy will become the top Republican on the Energy-Water subcommittee following the retirement of Tennessee's Lamar Alexander; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., moves from being Legislative Branch’s top Republican to Financial Services; and Mike Braun, R-Ind., another new panel member, becomes the top Republican on Legislative Branch.

With open arms?

The announcement from Leahy and ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., did not include any quotes welcoming the new committee leaders. Leahy later released a separate statement saying he believed the panel has “a skilled and experienced team to confront this challenge head on.”

Leahy has not been private about his concerns for how the new rule would impact the committee. He said last month that he was already planning to hold hearings with some Cabinet secretaries at the full committee instead of the subcommittee level.

In early February, Leahy said he would support the will of the caucus, but noted he had concerns about how junior members running subcommittees would impact the appropriations process.

"Whatever the caucus wants, we'll do. But I think we have to understand, we're starting late and we've got some enormous problems ahead of the committee. We've got to get the committees organized and we've got to have people in there who know what they're doing," Leahy said at the time.

Below is the full list of Senate Appropriations chairs and ranking members:

Agriculture

Commerce-Justice-Science

Defense

Energy-Water

Financial Services

Homeland Security

Interior-Environment

Labor-HHS-Education

Legislative Branch

Military Construction-VA

State-Foreign Operations

Transportation-HUD