Democratic Senate May Force Choices for Sanders, Whitehouse

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By Jonathan Nicholson

May 18 — If Hillary Clinton thinks Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a problem now, wait until the Democrats take over the Senate.

If the Senate does turn blue—an outcome more likely, many political observers say, if Clinton wins the White House—it could set off a cascade of musical chairs that could leave Sanders in charge of one of two committees crucial for Clinton to move her policy agenda through Congress.

One beneficiary could be Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has often represented Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee while Sanders has campaigned for the White House. Whitehouse, who has been working with Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) on changes to the federal budget process, did not dismiss the idea of going for the Budget gavel should it become available.

“There are potentially a variety of opportunities based on my seniority in different committees and that would be one of the opportunities,” Whitehouse told Bloomberg BNA.

Byzantine Rules

Whitehouse's activity on the budget process overhaul issue, where several Democrats and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) say Enzi is working in good faith to come up with a bipartisan bill, has raised his profile. Whitehouse and Enzi even appeared together at a “fiscal summit” May 11 to discuss the issue (See previous story, 05/13/16). Aside from being next in seniority after Sanders on the Democratic side, Whitehouse is also seen as having the natural interest in budget detail that marked one of Sanders' predecessors in the top Democratic spot, North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad.

Sanders' office declined to comment for this story.

Forecasting gavel moves under the Byzantine seniority rules of the Senate is always difficult, but with the retirement of some key senators, several scenarios are possible under which Sanders could head up either the Budget Committee or the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

If the Senate switched hands, Sanders could choose to remain as the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, moving from ranking member to chairman. Sanders' ascension to the ranking member slot was somewhat surprising, given the role's visibility and the number of panel members ahead of him in seniority. But all three of the more senior Democratic senators—Patty Murray (Wash.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.)—chose to take the top spots at committees other than Budget.

If he were to be chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, it would put Sanders in the position of having to advocate for the fiscal policies of a President Clinton, a position neither he nor the White House may be entirely comfortable with, given the gulf between their policy proposals unveiled during the Democratic primary season.

‘Get Re-Elected First.'

Under another scenario, Sanders could helm the HELP Committee, where his immediate predecessor on the Budget Committee, Murray, is now the top Democrat. The retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee would open the top slot there to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) by seniority. But Leahy may want to stay on the Judiciary Committee, where, by switching from ranking member to chairman, he could expect to preside over the confirmation of several U.S. Supreme Court nominees in the next presidential administration.

If Leahy stayed put, Murray could jump from the top slot at HELP to head Appropriations. That would, in turn, leave the HELP gavel to Sanders. But it could raise similar questions for Sanders as the Budget chair, given the broad jurisdiction of HELP and the likelihood many of Clinton's proposals would have to pass through the panel.

Leahy told Bloomberg BNA it was too early to decide what he would do in a Democrat-controlled Senate. “I have to get re-elected first. Then I'll make that decision,” he said.

Whitehouse also said it was too early to make any decisions, even as he acknowledged the Budget members ahead of him in seniority aside from Sanders had previously taken a pass on the top Democratic slot.

“It's not clear what they're going to want to do in the next Congress, so let's wait until we get through that debate before I start making too many decisions,” Whitehouse said

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a fellow Democrat on Budget, said Whitehouse would be a good choice to head the panel if Sanders moves on. “I just don't know what his own preference is. I'm really junior, so I don't get a say in any of this stuff, but he would be great if it was something that he wanted to do,” Kaine said.

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 in Washington at hrothman@bna.com.