Post-Election Chess:Senate Players, Lineup May Shift on Panel

By Nancy Ognanovich

Aug. 24 —The prospect of Democrats regaining control of the Senate next year is setting off speculation about a roster of potential Appropriations Committee leaders on the Democratic and Republican sides.

With current ranking member Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) set to retire at year's end, a number of other senior Democrats are potentially in line to lead the panel for the first time if Democrats win enough seats in November to retake the Senate. Senate aides said that both Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) would be among the top contenders to move into the chairmanship.

A takeover by Democrats also could put in motion changes in the committee's Republican leadership. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) could move back into the top Republican slot, they said.

While Democrats didn't adopt term limits, Republican rules limit the amount of time their members can serve as chairmen and ranking members. Current committee Chairman Thad Cochan (R-Miss.) has used only four of six years he can serve as chairman but has already exhausted the six years he can serve as ranking member.

“Since the term limit rules took effect in 1996, no one has asked for a waiver,” a senior Republican aide said.

Meanwhile, some of the committee's Republicans are facing tough re-election races, raising the possibility that a loss or two could require the realignment of their roster of subcommittee leaders even if Democrats don't take over. Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is considered among the most endangered Senate Republicans, and Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is facing a tougher-than-expected race.

Murray Versus Durbin

At present, Republicans hold 54 seats to Democrats' 46. Democrats would have to pick up only four seats if Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wins the election, because the vice president can break a 50-50 tie vote in the Senate.

Republicans have a tougher job. They hold 24 of the 34 seats in play this year. Eight Republicans on the committee are running for re-election, while four committee seats controlled by Democrats are in play.

Significant change already is underway because Mikulski said she will retire at year's end. She became the committee's first female chairman after the death of former Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) in 2012. Mikulski led the committee for both years of the 113th Congress and served as ranking member and vice chairman after Republicans took over the Senate in early 2015.

Democrats are projected to keep Mikulski's seat, with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) leading in the polls. Less certain is who will succeed Mikulski as the committee's top Democrat.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is in line to be the top Democrat but previously declined the chairmanship after Inouye's death, as did former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Senate aides said Leahy may be inclined to chair the Judiciary Committee, where he is currently ranking member, to have more of a hand in filling the current Supreme Court vacancy.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), meanwhile, is the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee and may seek to lead that panel, they said. As a result, Murray and Durbin are seen as the most likely to succeed Mikulski.

Murray, who formerly led the Budget Committee, only recently moved into the top Democratic slot at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after Harkin's retirement and may not want to give up that position. Durbin, in contrast, doesn't currently have a ranking position on a top committee, though he is ranking on the Appropriations Committee's Defense panel.

Both Durbin and Murray at the same time are competing to be the top lieutenant to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is in line to succeed Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as minority leader. Like Leahy, Murray is said to be safely leading in her own re-election bid. Durbin, who currently is the No. 2 Senate Democrat as minority whip, is not up for re-election this year.

Cochran Versus Shelby

Cochran is expected to try to remain chairman if Republicans retain the Senate. But if the Senate shifts to Democratic control, he would have exhausted the number of years he can serve as ranking member there and then may assert his right to serve instead as ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, aides said.

The developments would mirror what occurred in the 113th Congress, when Mikulski led the panel and Shelby was ranking member. But Shelby would not be able to continue as the top Republican on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. He currently is chairman of that panel.

Shelby's own seat is considered safe, now that he pushed back Republican primary challengers. Republicans also said to be clearly leading in their races are Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jerry Moran (Kan.), John Hoeven (N.D.), John Boozman (Ark.), and James Lankford (Okla.).

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

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