With Others Uninterested, Pathway Open For Sanders to Helm Budget Panel in 2015

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By Jonathan Nicholson  

July 29 — Democratic retention of control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections could yield something not seen since the early 2000s: an independent senator helming a major Senate standing committee, in the person of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) taking the Budget gavel.

Sanders, the sometimes fiery former mayor of Burlington, who caucuses with Democrats, told Bloomberg BNA July 29 he would consider taking the reins at Senate Budget if the post became available in the next Congress.

“Right now, needless to say, my energy is focused on the Veterans' Committee. It's premature really to be talking about that,” Sanders said, days ahead of what is expected to be congressional approval of a deal to boost funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Yeah, it's something I would consider, but right now my focus is on the Veterans' Committee. I enjoy the Veterans' Committee. It's an enormous amount of work, but we'll see what happens.”

The Veterans' Committee usually has a lower profile than Budget, though in recent years the latter has seen its activity diminish. The last independent to head a major committee was Jim Jeffords, also of Vermont, who took over Environment and Public Works after bolting the Republican party in 2001 and giving control of the chamber to Democrats.

Murray Not Speculating

Sanders, currently the fifth-ranking member on the majority side of the aisle on Budget, would need a few things to fall into place to take the gavel in the 114th Congress, but he also would benefit from the particular senators ahead of him on the panel.

He would need Democrats to retain control of the Senate, which is in doubt months ahead of the elections. He also would need the current chairman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), to jump to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, as has been speculated with the looming retirement of current panel chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). A Murray spokesperson said, “Chairman Murray is focused on her work in the Budget Committee and is not going to speculate about or comment on her role in future Congresses.”

If those two things happen, though, Sanders's path would likely be clear. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would keep his gavel with Senate Finance, while the retirement of Commerce Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) would make that committee gavel available for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the next in seniority on the Budget panel after Wyden. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) would also likely keep her chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee rather than switch to Budget, leaving Sanders next on the list.

Both Nelson and Stabenow told Bloomberg BNA July 29 they would not go for the Budget chairmanship if Murray moved on.

“Without being presumptuous, if I have the chance of either—whichever way, chairing or ranking member—I think most people pretty well understand that my choice would be Commerce,” Nelson said.

“Commerce just has such a broad array of jurisdiction … These are going to be all of the hot issues coming up in the next few years: telecommunications, aviation, all science and technology, consumer affairs, Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, NASA, all your weather forecasts, the National Academy of Sciences,” Nelson said.

Stabenow at Agriculture

“I have thought about it and it's my intent to stay on the Agriculture Committee,” Stabenow said. “Obviously, Budget is very, very important, but when we look at the fundamentals of the economy, our ability to grow things and produce things is very important and we've had good success on the committee, so it's my intent to stay.”

If Sanders succeeds Murray at Budget, it would not be the first time he would take over a gavel directly from her. She also preceded him as head of the Veterans' Committee, which Sanders took over in the current 113th Congress after Murray succeeded now-retired Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) at Budget.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com