Cochran Seeks to Keep Senate Approps Gavel; Top Democrat Slot in Flux

By Nancy Ognanovich

Nov. 9 — Republicans’ strong showing in the election will keep the GOP in charge of the Senate Appropriations Committee and increase their say over how more than $1 trillion in federal discretionary monies are spent.

Most committee Republicans will be returning for the 115th Congress after winning re-election, as are Democrats on the panel. But change also is in the wind: While committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is eligible to serve two more years in that position, Democrats are preparing to choose a new ranking member for the panel.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who easily won re-election and is next in line behind Cochran, said he is willing to wait his turn to lead the committee. But Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) are all said to be in the running as candidates to succeed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as the committee’s ranking member.

Committee leaders will have a large say over how billions in federal funds are distributed and will have to work with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump to set spending priorities, particularly as the threat of budget sequestration returns in 2017.

Kirk Is Lone Casualty

Besides Shelby, other committee Republicans who won their re-election bids were Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), John Hoeven (N.D.), John Boozman (Ark.) and James Lankford (Okla.). Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was the only member to lose his election.

On the Democratic side, both Leahy and Murray were easily re-elected.

Members of both parties plan to return the week of Nov. 14 for organizational meetings, when committee rosters will be discussed. Cochran already has served six years as ranking member and four years as chairman of the committee but so far hasn’t faced any challenger to remain as the panel’s top Republican. Under Republican rules he could serve as chairman for two more years.

Shelby, who under Republican term limit rules had to give up the gavel at the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, said he plans to be more active on Appropriations but is prepared to wait his turn to be chairman.

More is currently in flux on the Democratic side. Leahy is the most senior member but earlier passed on the gavel, giving Mikulski the chance to chair the committee after the death of former Chairman Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii). Leahy is said to the prefer the work of the Judiciary Committee, where he currently is ranking member and involved in the debate over filling vacancies at the U.S. Supreme Court.

But it remains uncertain whether Leahy still will assert his own seniority at Appropriations. Congressional sources said he may be interested in the job.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), also a senior committee member, is said to be more likely to remain at the Intelligence Committee, where she serves as ranking member. That takes the matter down to Murray and Durbin, the next most senior members.

Senate aides said they expect the issue to be settled soon as it is linked to a separate Democratic leadership race.

Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tapped Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to succeed him as the party’s leader, bypassing Durbin, who long served as Democratic whip. After that, Murray signaled interest in the whip’s job as well, setting up a leadership contest that will be settled by a vote when lawmakers return for organizational meetings the week of Nov. 14.

Durbin’s office has expressed confidence that he has the votes to return as minority whip, but current practice hasn’t allowed Democratic leaders to also serve simultaneously as chairmen or ranking members of major committees. It remains to be seen whether changes are made to permit either Durbin or Murray to serve in leadership and hold a top Democratic committee slot.

Besides being senior on Appropriations, Murray is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee and has said she would like to retain that job.

Whatever the outcome of the leadership race, both Durbin and Murray may retain their ranking slots on the panel’s largest subcommittees. Durbin is ranking on the Defense Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over more than $500 billion in annual Pentagon funds. Murray is ranking on the Labor, Health, and Human Services panel, which is responsible for more than $200 billion in spending.

New Lineup of Cardinals

Beyond the top slots, some change is expected in the lineup of subcommittee chairmen and ranking members.

Blunt’s ability to win his race—one of the most closely watched in the country—means he can return to the chairmanship of the Labor-HHS Subcommittee. Meanwhile, Cochran could continue as chairman of Defense and Shelby, Commerce-Justice-Science. Hoeven can return to Homeland Security, Boozman to Financial Services, Murkowski to Interior-Environment, Moran to Agriculture, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to Energy and Water, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to State Foreign Operations, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) at Legislative Branch.

But Kirk’s loss means the top Republican slot on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee will be open. A move by another cardinal—such as Hoeven or Capito—to move into the slot could generate other changes in the lineup.

On the Democratic side, some changes may be initiated if Feinstein seeks to succeed Mikulski as the ranking member of the C-J-S Subcommittee. That would require her to give up her ranking slot at Energy and Water. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is seen as interested in taking that position. He is currently ranking member on Milcon-VA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at

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