New Generation of Committee Chairs Seen Under Democratic Majority

By Nancy Ognanovich

Oct. 27 — A new generation of leaders may be ready to take the gavels at many Senate committees in the 115th Congress if Democrats reclaim the chamber in the Nov. 8 election.

While senior lawmakers are expected to exert control over many A-list committees, a number of Democratic senators elected in the last decade are likely to be elevated to chairmanship posts at other panels for the first time if their party picks up enough seats to reclaim majority status.

The combination of election wins and retirements could result in a strikingly different lineup of committee chairs than that seen when Democrats controlled the chamber only two years ago. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) all are among the less senior lawmakers who may control panels in the new Congress.

A new roster of committee chairs would be expected to help incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) push the legislative priorities of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton if she is elected to the White House. Both Democrats and Republicans are expected to make decisions about their new committee lineups soon after lawmakers return the week of Nov. 15 for organizational meetings.

“You’re going to have a lot of people who are going to be learning both the power and the limitations of these committees,” Israel Klein, a former Schumer aide, said. “There are people who are going to have a lot of pent-up desire to get things done.”

Retirements Also Spur Change

Democrats need to pick up a minimum of four seats in the election to control the chamber, so long as Clinton defeats Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, which would give Vice President Tim Kaine a tie-breaking vote as senate president. Democrats are said to be in good position to pick up five to seven seats in the election.

But a Clinton victory also could cause more changes in the Senate, beginning with the departure of Sen. Kaine (D-Va.), who was elected in 2012.

“There’s also the possibility that some senators could be selected to serve in a Clinton administration,” said Klein, who recently prepared an analysis of the likely committee leaders.

Other changes already in the works will make room for less senior lawmakers to move up the ladder. Among others, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, are retiring at year’s end.

“Besides Appropriations, there are more than another half-dozen committees where there could be senators in new chairmanships,” said David Morgenstern, a principal at Podesta Group who previously worked for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a senior appropriator.

Morgenstern said the potential chairs are not necessarily junior members who came only recently to the Senate.

“But many have not had the chance to chair full committees previously,” he said.

Both Klein and Morgenstern said they expect Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to reclaim the chairmanship of the Finance Committee if Democrats regain control. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also is seen as likely to move from ranking member to chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Similarly, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is expected to move from ranking member to chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) from ranking member to chair of the Intelligence Committee. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is also seen as having the option to move from ranking to the chair of Agriculture.

Mikulski’s departure is setting off intense speculation over who will lead Appropriations if Democrats take control. While Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is most senior on the panel, Klein and others said he is more interested in continuing as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to oversee the filling of vacancies at the Supreme Court. Many observers also said they believe Feinstein would pass on the job.

Instead, the prime candidates are Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also are currently vying for the leadership post of Democratic whip.

Klein said even Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) could have a shot at the job.

“There are so many permutations, and that’s why we go three deep at these committees,” Klein said.

Klein said other variables include whether Murray would prefer to chair the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee or might be tapped to serve as Clinton’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

If Murray gave up the chance to chair HELP, where she now serves as ranking member, that may clear the way for Sanders to head the panel. If, in the alternative, Sanders wanted to reclaim the gavel of the Budget Committee, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), in office since 2007, would be in line to chair HELP, Klein said.

The Armed Services Committee also would have a new chairman if Democrats retook the Senate, with Reed in line for the post. But, Klein said, that post could go to others if Reed was nominated to serve as secretary of defense.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is expected to move into the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee while Brown takes the helm at the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Klein said. Both lawmakers came to the Senate in 2007.

Klein downplayed speculation that Democratic leaders might elevate former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) to the Banking chairmanship if he regains his seat this year.

“I don’t think there is any serious consideration they would displace Sherrod Brown for Evan Bayh,” Klein said. “It’s just not part of reality.”

New EPW, Homeland Chairs

The retirement of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also is creating an opportunity for Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to claim the gavel at that committee.

Klein and Morgenstern said Carper’s move to chair that panel then would leave open the top Democratic slot at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. McCaskill is in line to take that job.

Similarly, Tester is in line to chair the Indian Affairs Committee, a key panel for his home state of Montana, they said.

Some lawmakers who arrived in the Senate in 2009 or even later also may chair committees next year. They include Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is in line to lead the Small Business Committee, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is the senior Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

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

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

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.