Health gavel a tough call for Dodd

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has not made a decision about whether he wants to take over an important chairmanship left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Dodd ranks after Kennedy on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has jurisdiction over healthcare reform, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic initiative.

But if Dodd took over that panel, he would likely have to step down as chairman of the Banking Committee, which will handle financial regulatory reform, another important Obama priority. 

Complicating the decision is that Dodd is facing the most difficult reelection of his career next year and polls show him trailing his Republican opponent by nearly 10 points.

“I haven’t given that a second’s worth of thought,” said Dodd, who considered Kennedy his best friend in the Senate, when asked about the HELP Committee during a conference call Wednesday. “I’ll leave that for down the road.”

Dodd said he would consult with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) before making a decision affecting the leadership of three committees.

Sources close to Dodd said his preference earlier this year was to stay at Banking to finish financial regulatory reform and then take over HELP at the beginning of next year. But one source said it is impossible to tell how Kennedy's death will affect Dodd's decisionmaking, adding that Dodd will want to make sure he is in the best position to advance the work Kennedy started on healthcare reform.

Dodd has been the HELP Committee’s point person on health reform this year because of Kennedy’s illness.

Democratic lobbyists who work closely with the Senate made arguments for why Dodd would take over HELP or stay at Banking. For now, they say, Dodd is keeping his cards very close to the vest.

One Democrat noted that Dodd has come under scrutiny for his role atop Banking, which has led some voters to think he has become too close to the financial-services industry he regulates.

Leaving Banking for HELP would allow Dodd to distance himself from an industry that has weighed him down politically and become the Senate's official point man on healthcare reform, an issue near and dear to many Democratic voters.

“At the end of the day it’s likely he decides to take over HELP,” said the Democrat. “That’s my thinking. It’s an opportunity to move on to an issue closer to the hearts of a lot of people he represents.”

Another Democratic lobbyist said that Dodd could help himself politically by staying put at Banking and showing consistency that some Connecticut votes might appreciate after he moved to Iowa briefly during the 2008 presidential campaign. The source said that Dodd could otherwise be seen as trying to “run away” from the political problems stemming from his oversight of the financial-services industry.

The Democrat said Dodd would “show steady willingness to take the bull by the horns” and deal with financial reform.

If Dodd moves to HELP, he would open a seat atop Banking and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is next in line. But Johnson is still suffering the effects of a 2006 brain hemorrhage and needs a wheelchair to move around, raising questions about whether his health can stand the rigors of a major regulatory overhaul.

Johnson is viewed as more centrist on financial issues than Dodd, and some in the industry think banks and credit card companies might face fewer restrictions should he become chairman. South Dakota has significant banking and credit card interests.

The split between Dodd and Johnson was evident on one of the highest-profile battles in the committee in 2009. Dodd pushed hard for new restrictions on credit card companies, but Johnson opposed the effort in committee. Johnson was the lone Democratic senator to oppose the bill Dodd shepherded past the Senate floor with 90 votes.

If Johnson declined the gavel, it would likely fall to Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is fourth in line at the committee and would relish oversight of an industry crucial to the economy of his home state. While Democrats would likely follow seniority in appointing a successor, Schumer, the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, can’t be counted out.

If Dodd stays at Banking, Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the third-ranking Democrat on the HELP Committee, would have a shot at taking over for Kennedy.

One Democratic source said he had no doubt that Harkin would take Kennedy’s gavel because “HELP is a bigger universe” than the Agriculture Committee, which Harkin now chairs. Harkin may have second thoughts about leaving Agriculture because it is a major industry in his home state.

But taking over HELP would give Harkin control over the authorization and appropriations committees with primary jurisdiction on healthcare, which makes up about a sixth of the U.S. economy. Harkin chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee.

“There's not much more to say beyond the fact that Sen. Harkin is focused on nothing else right now than mourning the loss of Sen. Kennedy and honoring his legacy,” said Kate Cyrul, Harkin’s spokeswoman.

If Harkin left the Agriculture Committee, his gavel could fall to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Budget Committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the second-ranking Democrat on Agriculture, is expected to remain as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

If Leahy, Conrad and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, passed on replacing Harkin, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is up for reelection, would become the next Agriculture chairman.

If both Dodd and Harkin stayed as chairman of Banking and Agriculture, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would be next in line to take over the HELP panel. Mikulski has noted that a woman does not chair any of the Senate’s major committees, something she would love to change.

— Silla Brush contributed to this report.