Democrats look for more control over Senate committees

With their big wins on Election Day, Democrats want extra seats on various Senate Committees next year, which would help them pass legislation.

“Some committees will have more [Democratic] seats,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It is subject to discussions between the leaders as they work on the organizing resolution.”

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) need to reach agreement on committee ratios by the start of the next Congress in January, when the Senate will adopt an organizing resolution.

“This is a long process with a lot of negotiation going on so it’s tough to comment on specifics,” said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson. “All I can really say at this point is that we are in the process of negotiating committee ratios and makeup with Republicans.”

Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell declined to comment on whether or not Democrats have a compelling case to widen their committee margins.

The committee ratios in the next Congress could have added significance if lawmakers fail to reach a deal next month to avert automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. If the cuts take place, lawmakers will have to undergo painful cuts to their office budgets.

The ratio of Democratic and Republican committee seats often influences the allocation of staff resources between the parties. If the Republican share of the pie shrinks, it would compound the pain of funding cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

One panel where Democrats need a bigger cushion is the Senate Budget Committee, where fiery liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stymied efforts to pass a budget because of disagreements with centrists on the panel over taxes and spending.

It’s unlikely, however, that Democrats would increase their margin by enough seats to neutralize Sanders or allow them to draft a more liberal budget that could afford to lose support from centrist Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) or Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Nelson just won a competitive race but Warner faces re-election in 2014.

Democrats now control 12 seats on Budget, compared to 11 Republican seats. They would need to add two seats to be able to handle a defection in the next Congress.

Boosting their efforts is their greater majority in the upper chamber next year. With wins in Indiana and Massachusetts, along with expectations that independent Sen.-elect Angus King of Maine will caucus with them, Democrats will have 55 seats come January.

When Republicans enjoyed a 55-45 seat advantage under then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in the 109thCongress, they controlled more seats on an array of committees.

Republicans then had a two-seat advantage on the Agriculture, Budget, Commerce, Homeland Security and Foreign Service Committees.

Democrats have had only a one-seat majority on those committees in the 112th Congress, where they have a 53-47 seat advantage.

Seven years ago, Republicans had a three-seat majority on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over climate change legislation. Democrats now have only a two-seat majority on the Environment panel.

Committee ratios have been a controversial topic in past years, with the minority party at times threatening to filibuster ratios it considered unfair.

Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) drove a hard bargain to split committee ratios and resources evenly after the 2000 election, even though Republicans were technically the majority party by virtue of controlling the White House, which gave then-Vice President Dick Cheney the power to break tied votes in the Senate.

Then Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) set off a wave of grumbling in his caucus when he agreed to a power-sharing agreement that split committee ratios 50-50 and set up a mechanism to automatically discharge bills to the floor in case of tied committee votes.

The allocation of committee seats will depend on the requests of newly-elected senators. If multiple incoming Democratic senators ask for assignments to the same committee, there will be more incentive for Reid to increase seats on that panel.

Sen.-elect Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota told reporters Thursday that she has already been offered a slot on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over the stalled farm bill.