Junior Senate Dems want chairmen to face secret ballot election

Senate Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 are challenging the internal caucus procedures that have allowed veteran lawmakers to lock up committee chairmanships for years on end.

A group of junior Democratic senators are pushing for committee chairmen to stand for election at the beginning of each Congress, a requirement that has not been in effect for years, according to lawmakers familiar with the discussions.

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They want to have more of a say in the leadership of powerful committees, such as the Senate Finance, Appropriations, Commerce and Banking panels.

The proposed rules change has made some chairmen nervous, Democratic aides say.

If chairman have to face reelection at the beginning of each Congress, they might be less willing to cut deals with Republicans. Or it could motivate them to be more generous in sharing committee funds with junior members who head subcommittees.

A group of members from the classes of ’06 and ’08 began meeting with Democratic leaders last year to discuss rules reform.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the class of ’06, is leading the charge. He would like for the Senate Democratic conference to elect chairmen by secret ballot.

“I think it’s going to happen, I think most senators think we ought to have a secret ballot and elect the chairmen of each of the committees,” Brown said.

Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), another Democrat elected in 2006, is leading a review of Democratic conference rules for committees and chairmen.

Cardin declined to discuss the specific proposals under consideration.

“We’re just trying to have a predictable process,” he said.

Under Democratic conference rules, the Senate Steering Committee, a panel of about 15 senior members, is supposed to make recommendations at the beginning of each Congress about who should serve as committee chairmen. The rest of the Democratic conference is supposed to ratify those recommendations.

But Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) controls the process, lawmakers say.

“We would actually sit down and decide how we would arrange who goes on which committees, try to keep a regional balance and ideological balance and all that kind of stuff, and then we would go to the caucus and have it affirmed it by secret ballot,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is listed as a member of the steering committee on the panel’s website.

“It hasn’t been that way since George Mitchell was majority leader; they don’t even make the recommendations, the majority leader does,” Harkin said in reference to the former Democratic senator from Maine, who served as majority leader until 1995.

“The Steering Committee is Harry Reid and his top staffer,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Reid has almost always allowed seniority to take precedence in questions of committee leadership, although he encouraged the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to step down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2008 after Byrd missed a significant number of panel meetings because of poor health, according to Senate sources.

Regan LaChapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, reiterated that the formal process calls for the Steering Committee to make recommendations on committee chairmanships and membership and for the Democratic Caucus to ratify those recommendations.

Cardin said he is looking to codify the procedure for appointing committee chairmen and make it more predictable.

“Our caucus rules currently provide a way for a check and balance of our caucus on Steering Committee recommendations; we’re just trying make it work the right way. I think our committee chairmen do an excellent job,” Cardin said.

The Maryland Democrat disputed the notion that junior senators are challenging the power and perks of seniority enjoyed by old bulls.

Several committee chairmen said they might be willing to change the rules to require them to face reelection at the beginning of each Congress.

“I have no strong views on it either way,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said, “I’m thinking about it.”

“Becoming a chairman, at least on the Democratic side, in almost every instance has been a matter of seniority,” Lieberman noted.

Republicans have adopted term limits on their chairmen and ranking members.

Democrats have no such limits, and it is extremely difficult to dislodge a Democratic senator once he takes over the top slot on a committee.

“Once you’re a chair, you have to be doing something wrong or you have to be a problem” to lose the gavel, Lieberman said.

Senate Democrats almost stripped Lieberman of his Homeland Security gavel in 2008 after he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the presidential race.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who served as chairwoman of the Steering and Outreach Committee in the 111th Congress, said she would not oppose changing the rules to require chairman to stand for election by secret ballot.

“I can do either way,” she said. “I think our committee chairs have the confidence of the caucus. I don’t think voting would change anything.”

Junior senators also want to re-examine the number of committee assignments each senator can hold and the amount of funding committee chairmen must share with lower-ranking members who head subcommittees.