GOP Rules, Losses Seen Triggering New Senate Lineups

By Nancy Ognanovich

Oct. 28 — Senate Republican rules limiting lawmakers’ time as committee leaders—and any election losses—could significantly revamp the lineup of leaders in the next Congress, whether or not the GOP maintains its majority status in the Nov. 8 elections.

Republican leaders on more than a half-dozen major committees aren’t expected to change if their party holds onto the Senate. But a number of lawmakers—including those at the top of panels with jurisdiction over banking and environmental programs—have served the full six years allowed and will surrender their gavels to new leaders in the 115th Congress. And other changes could be in the works at panels with jurisdiction over homeland security, intelligence and other programs if key Republican senators lose their re-election bids.

More changes in the GOP lineup will be in the works, however, if Democrats retake the Senate. Even without election losses, the party’s rule that also limits Republicans’ time as ranking members to six years is expected to generate a cascade of changes at least a half-dozen committees, observers said.

Committee leaders will have a large say in helping Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to either promote—or block—the agenda of the next president. Decisions about the party’s roster in the new Congress will be made soon after senators return the week of Nov. 15 for leadership elections and other organizational meetings.

“The rules say that a senator can serve no more than six years as chairman of the same committee, and they also limit service as a ranking member of the same committee to six,” said David Morgenstern, a principal at Podesta Group who recently developed an analysis of all the potential committee leaders in both scenarios. “So those rules are going to generate a lot of changes.”

New Lineup in Majority

Under the Republican term limit rules, time served as a ranking member doesn’t count as time served as chairman, said Morgenstern, a former aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). But once a lawmaker serves six years as a chairman on a committee, “You’re done,” and can’t serve as a ranking member, he said. Waivers are the only way to get around the rule, he added.

If Republicans retain their majority, those rules will require Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to step down as the chairman of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) to give up the gavel at the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. Morgenstern said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is expected to move into the top banking slot.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is in line to chair EPW, he said.

In contrast, other many other Republicans still have significant time left to serve as chairmen on their committees. Among those said to be eligible to return as chairmen are Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) at Agriculture; Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) at Appropriations; Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) at Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at Energy and Natural Resources; Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) at Finance; Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) at Foreign Relations; and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) at Aging.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) also can return to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee, unless he tries to invoke his seniority at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP) and displace Alexander, current HELP chairman. But Morgenstern and others said the latter scenario isn’t expected.

Some of those lawmakers—including Thune and Murkowski—are running for re-election but are predicted to easily win another term. Other races are closer, but they still are said to be leaning in Republicans’ favor. Among others, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is expected to be re-elected and could return to the helm of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) also now is expected to win another term and then could retain the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. While Grassley continues to have seniority at Finance, the lawmaker is said to prefer the post at Judiciary, particularly as Supreme Court battles loom.

Under a majority scenario, new chairmen are expected at the Small Business and Indian Affairs committees, however. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is in line to lead the Small Business Committee after the retirement of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) may claim the gavel at Indian Affairs if current chairman, Barrasso, moves up to EPW, Morgenstern said.

But more uncertainty surrounds some other committees. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is in a tough re-election race, as is Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Inhofe is next in line behind McCain on Armed Services and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)—also in a tough re-election bid—is in line behind Johnson. In line after Portman at Homeland is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is expected to easily win his own race.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also has emerged as one of the most endangered Republicans. If he fails to win re-election, Risch also would be in line to lead that panel. Morgenstern said such a development could create an opening for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—if he wins his own race—to lead Small Business.

Also in a tight race is Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Morgenstern said Shelby may be among the leading contenders to fill a vacancy at that panel.

Ranking Member Scenario

Of course, more change in Republican committee leaders could occur if the GOP ends up in the minority after the election, both Morgenstern and Israel Klein, managing partner of Roberti Global, said. Klein also recently produced an analysis of both potential Republican and Democratic leaders of Senate next year.

A direct shift from chairman to ranking member would be expected in the leadership at the Aging, Budget, Commerce, Finance, Foreign Relations, HELP and Veterans committees in that instance, they said. Crapo also is seen as becoming ranking on Banking, they said. But Republican term limit rules, they said, would force many changes at other panels.

“There are potentially a lot more new faces in the leadership of the committees than people realize,” said Klein, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming Democratic leader.

McCain, if he returns, already has exhausted his six years as ranking on Armed Services and would have to relinquish the top slot to Inhofe. At Appropriations, Cochran also is out of time and would have to cede the top slot to Shelby. In turn, Cochran might once again assert his seniority at Agriculture and displace Roberts. Roberts subsequently might seek the top minority spot at Rules. McCain, meanwhile, might assert his seniority to become the ranking member of the Homeland panel.

Term limit rules also would require Murkowski to give up the top Republican slot on Energy and Natural Resources. That would create an opportunity for Barrasso to move into the spot. However, Morgenstern said Barrasso also is in line to be ranking on EPW.

“That gives Barrasso a choice of Energy or EPW, but since Energy seems more important to his home state, it’s believed he would take that committee,” Morgenstern said.

Murkowski in turn is seen as likely to become ranking on the Indian Affairs panel, which is also of great importance to Alaska, Morgenstern said. But Klein said McCain is another candidate for the slot.

Even if the Republicans lose majority status, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) still could emerge as a big winner next year, however.

Capito, a freshman who came to the Senate in 2015, would be in line to be the ranking member of EPW if Barrasso takes the top Republican slot on Energy, Morgenstern said.

Capito’s quick ascension is said to reflect Senate Republican rules that gave her more seniority over 11 other GOP freshmen who came the same year. Under those rules, Capito was credited for her lengthy prior service in the House.

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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