Inouye is pressed to give up his gavel

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) is coming under pressure to relinquish his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. 

Critics say the Senate panel has lost power in recent years under the 88-year-old Inouye, who took over the committee after Democrats pressured the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to step aside. 

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Byrd was just shy of his 91st birthday when he gave up his gavel to Inouye, who was 84 at the time. 

“I love Inouye. He’s just been sort of not there in terms of running the committee,” said one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a powerful colleague. 

“We get shunted to the side, we don’t get our bills out, we’re not forceful about it. I guess that argues for term limits. Sometimes people stay just too long,” the senator added.

Some colleagues are frustrated the Appropriations Committee has become what they see as a rubber stamp for the Obama administration’s priorities. It does not wield the same clout it did under former Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) during the George W. Bush administration, they say.

“The Appropriations Committee, we’re not doing anything — it’s been staff-run now for almost seven years. Staff can do a good job, but you still have to have somebody who guides and directs it,” the senator said. 

The senator said the committee needs to regain some of its stature by establishing more independence from the Obama administration.

“What we’ve been doing over the past few years is, ‘Well, here’s what the White House wants, so that’s what we do.’ Well, sometimes we ought to say we’re not doing that, we’re doing something else. Let the White House know we decide how to spend the money, not them,” the lawmaker said.

Another senior Democratic senator said that view “has some truth to it.”

Speculation about whether it is time for a new chairman to take over the Appropriations panel is a part of broader debate over whether Senate Democrats should place term limits on committee chairmen.

Republicans imposed six-year term limits on committee chairmen in 1995. They also limited service as the ranking minority member of a committee to six years.

Republican chairmen and ranking members are elected by the GOP members of their committee, another difference from the Democratic Conference, where the leader fills these posts.

Placing term limits on chairmen is one of the reforms of Senate Democratic rules being discussed, but there does not appear to be enough momentum to change the rules before the start of the new Congress in January.

“People are talking about different things,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), when asked about limiting the tenure of chairmen. “I think we’re struggling to find a way to make sure everyone can contribute, but it’s too early to say anyone is leading anything in one direction. People are just talking.”

McCaskill did not comment about Inouye.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has resisted imposing term limits on chairmen. When asked Thursday if he could support limits, he gave a terse and definitive answer: “No.”

Reid initially pushed back against calls for Byrd’s ouster, but as the new Congress approached, he realized he might have to nudge his onetime mentor out of the chairmanship.

Reid’s opposition appears to have sapped some of the support among junior lawmakers for term limits.

Two years ago, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) led an unsuccessful effort by junior Democrats to require chairmen to be elected by a secret-ballot vote of the Democratic Conference. But on Thursday he said he didn’t know if he supports term limits for chairmen.

“I’ve really not focused on it,” he said.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said the Senate Republican Conference shares power more equitably. “It appears to me their rules share more of the power, and I think that’s a good idea,” he said.  

Except at committee hearings, reporters rarely see Inouye, who usually takes the elevator from his suite of offices on the first floor of the Capitol to a restricted hallway just outside the Senate chamber during votes.

Recently, he has needed a wheelchair to get around, and this week he was hospitalized because of difficulty breathing. He is still recovering at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Inouye is the Senate’s president pro tempore and third in line to the presidency. He has served in the Senate for 50 years.

Democratic colleagues say they deeply respect his accomplishments and often hail his service in Italy during World War II, for which he received the Medal of Honor.

Inouye has shown no signs of being ready to retire as Appropriations chairman. He was appointed to a third term by the Democratic Steering Committee, which Reid controls.

“I appreciate the confidence of the Democratic Steering Committee, which announced yesterday that I have been selected to serve another two year term as chairman of the Appropriations Committee,” Inouye said in a statement sent to The Hill. “Over the past four years the committee has accomplished a great deal, from enacting the American Recovery Act and the final war supplemental during my first 120 days as chairman to enacting all 12 bills in fiscal year 2012 and reporting 11 of our 12 bills to the floor for the current fiscal year. 

“The committee has done its best for the American people and I look forward to returning to the Senate in the near future to continue with my responsibilities,” he added. 

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