By Alexander Bolton - 12/19/12 10:00 AM EST
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is poised to take over as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, shifting the leadership of the partisan panel in charge of judicial nominations to the center.
She will have primary jurisdiction over two of the biggest issues Congress will tackle next year: immigration reform and gun control.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Leahy had not yet made up his mind whether he would take the Appropriations gavel. He told reporters he would announce a decision within 24 hours.
Feinstein has sided with Republicans on big votes, which could pave the way for landmark bipartisan compromises on divisive issues such as immigration reform.
She voted for the 2001 Bush tax cuts, which were projected at the time to cost $1.35 trillion, the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002 and Bush’s Medicare prescription drug package in 2003, which many liberals opposed.
Unlike many of her Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary panel, Feinstein is not a lawyer and does not have as cozy a relationship with the powerful trial-attorney lobby. She supported a bill to limit liability in the run-up to 2000, when experts warned the turn of the millennium would create information-technology chaos. Trial lawyers opposed the measure.
Feinstein has also split with some of her more liberal colleagues on judicial nominees. In 2007, she stunned liberal colleagues by voting with nine Republicans to pass Leslie Southwick, President George W. Bush’s controversial pick for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, despite objections from Leahy, who was then chairman.
But Feinstein has sided with liberals in other battles over the judiciary. She was one of a small group of Democrats to vote against both of Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
Leahy voted to confirm Roberts.
National Journal ranked Feinstein as more conservative than Leahy in rankings released in February, giving Feinstein a liberal score of 80 and Leahy an 83.3. That’s My Congress gave her a liberal score of 64 compared to Leahy’s liberal rating of 71.
A senior Democratic aide said the leadership would be happy with Feinstein taking over the committee: “She should be a very good Judiciary Committee chairman; the two big issues next year are gun safety and immigration reform, and she is excellent on both issues.”
But some liberals in the House are not thrilled with Feinstein as the next Judiciary chairwoman. They would prefer to see Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who rank just behind her on the committee, in the top slot.
Senate Democratic aides say the most relevant difference between Leahy and Feinstein is over gun control, which will rank high on President Obama’s agenda next year.
Feinstein said over the weekend she would introduce legislation to reinstate the federal assault-weapons ban on the first day of the new Congress in January. Leahy has had a mixed record on gun control. He voted to allow firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains but also supported background checks at gun shows.
When asked if she would push gun-control measures if the Judiciary Committee chairmanship became available to her, she said, “Keep tuned, I think it is and it’ll happen.”
If Feinstein takes over as the next chairwoman of the Judiciary panel, she would have to step down as head of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has the opportunity to replace Feinstein as Intelligence chairman, but he could choose to instead chair the Energy and Natural Resources panel, which is an important committee for his home state, where the timber industry is a major employer.
Wyden said Tuesday that he is looking forward to working on issues under the Energy panel’s jurisdiction and declined to comment on the Intelligence gavel.
“I’m going to let Sen. Reid make announcements, but we’re continuing our work on Energy,” he said in reference to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
If Wyden sticks with the Energy chairmanship, that would give Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) a chance to succeed Feinstein as Intelligence Committee chairwoman.
“I think this is all unfolding, but if there’s an opportunity, I will certainly take it,” she said.
Mikulski would make cybersecurity one of her priorities as head of the Intelligence Committee. Earlier this year she touted the Appropriations Committee’s passage of the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, which allocated $136 million for the FBI to fund 579 positions dedicated to cybersecurity.