Landrieu balks at giving Lautenberg Byrd's subcommittee chairmanship

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)Sen. Robert Byrd’s death has sparked a battle between two Democrats for control over an Appropriations subcommittee that covers environmental disasters and terrorism.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is fighting party leaders’ decision to name Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) interim chairman of the Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee.

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Landrieu says the post should be hers.

“I haven’t agreed to that,” said Landrieu. “I’m next in line to be chair.”

Before this week, Landrieu outranked Lautenberg on the subcommittee, of which Byrd (D-W.Va.), who died on Monday, was head.

She was shocked when Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) announced Tuesday that Lautenberg would take the gavel for the foreseeable future.

“I have spoken to leadership about it, but I’ve not agreed,” Landrieu said. “If anyone is going to be the interim chair, it would probably be myself until things get worked out.”

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will play an important role helping Gulf Coast residents recover from the BP oil disaster.

FEMA, as the agency is known, became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. It has a website to help people affected by the spill to file claims for reimbursement with the British energy giant.

Lautenberg’s appointment lasts until the end of this Congress.

Lautenberg ranked seventh on the Homeland Security panel. Four Democrats ahead of him already run subcommittees and may not take over a second.

Landrieu does not chair an Appropriations subcommittee and has more seniority than Lautenberg, even though he is now in his fifth term. His senatorial career was not continuous, and when he returned in 2003, his seniority was not reinstated.

Landrieu will have an opportunity to claim the gavel when the Senate reorganizes in January 2011.

But Lautenberg will fight to keep a chairmanship he sees as critical to his constituents.

He says his party still owes him for saving New Jersey’s Senate seat from falling into Republican hands.

In 2002, the Democratic leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.), pleaded with Lautenberg to run again, even though he had retired after three terms in 2000.

The incumbent Democrat, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), was embroiled in scandal, having been rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting improper gifts. Polls showed him trailing his Republican challenger by double digits.

Torricelli dropped out of the race just over a month before Election Day, and Democratic leaders turned to Lautenberg, who was still well-known and respected.

Lautenberg says Daschle promised to reinstate his seniority but, after the seat was retained, Daschle said he didn’t remember making any such pledge.

So Lautenberg returned to the Senate ranked as a freshman.

“I posed the question, ‘Will I get some seniority?’ ” Lautenberg said of his conversation with Daschle. “He said, effectively, ‘We’ll take care of that.’

“I got back nothing,” Lautenberg said. “We were down 22 points and had to work like the devil.”

Lautenberg said he had wanted to return to the Senate to serve his state and country again, but that the promise of seniority was important.

He has made his case to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and has stressed the importance of homeland security spending to New Jersey, which is more densely populated than any other state.

“Providing for the safety and security of our families, communities and the economy is my first priority and the most critical responsibility we have in Congress,” Lautenberg said in a statement.

“This subcommittee is particularly important to New Jersey, which is home to the most at-risk two miles in America for a terrorist attack, and families in my state will never forget the horror of Sept. 11, 2001,” he added.

“I look forward to leading this subcommittee and advancing America’s homeland security infrastructure.”

Other lawmakers are keeping their distance from the battle.

“I don’t know — it’s a leadership decision,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, which has authorizing power over domestic security issues.

The Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security subcommittee is powerful because it decides how to spend federal money on disasters and to prevent terrorism.

Senate Democrats will reorganize panel seats after the election. Some may gain new chairmen and members depending on which incumbents lose their races.

If Republicans pick up enough seats, the partisan ratios of the panels will change, eliminating Democratic seats.

Inouye will tell Reid who he thinks should be the 12 subcommittee chairmen. Reid will then submit a committee organizing resolution to the Democratic Conference to ratify by a vote.

The conference usually approves the chairmanships and committee memberships proposed by the leader.

Lautenberg could make an appeal to Reid to remain chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee.

Lautenberg could win a secret vote of his peers because of his length of service. He is a more reliable Democratic vote than Landrieu, so other senators may want to reward him rather than her.

Landrieu will argue that the conference should not forgo the seniority system, a powerful message in the tradition-conscious chamber.

This story was originally posted at 12:40 p.m. and updated at 8:33 p.m.