Sen. Leahy turns down gavel for Defense spending subpanel

The Senate post overseeing more than $500 billion in annual defense spending is up for grabs once again.

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyLawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March Poll: Sanders most popular senator in the US Senate Dems offer bill to restore internet privacy rules MORE (D-Vt.) said Wednesday he will not become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee. As the most senior member of the panel, Leahy had the first opportunity to take the position.

Leahy decided to remain at the helm of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee instead of taking over the defense panel from the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who was chairman of defense along with the full Appropriations Committee.

“Vermonters are outward looking and have a long history of working to make life better here at home and across the globe. I have been privileged to serve as a voice for Vermont on foreign policy matters,” Leahy said in a statement Wednesday. “That is why I have chosen for so many years to head one of the two Senate committees responsible for U.S. foreign affairs and protecting our global interests.”

Multiple senators are likely to eye the defense subcommittee, which deals with more than $500 billion in spending annually, making up roughly half of the discretionary budget.

While new Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiDems press for paycheck fairness bill on Equal Pay Day After 30 years celebrating women’s history, have we made enough progress? DC restaurant owners sue Trump hotel over unfair competition: report MORE (D-Md.) had the third-most seniority on the full panel after Leahy and Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDistance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream MORE (D-Iowa), other lawmakers outrank her on the defense subpanel. Seniority for subcommittees is based on time served for the specific subpanel.

Harkin would be next in line for defense based on seniority, but a spokesman on Wednesday said he would remain at his current post chairing the labor, health and education subcommittee.

The next senator in line for defense is Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Top Dem: Shutdown over border wall would be 'height of irresponsibility' Sunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark MORE (D-Ill.), who currently chairs the Financial Services subcommittee.

Industry sources say that many defense executives expect Durbin to take the defense post, although one suggested he might pass due to his job as majority whip.

If Durbin doesn’t want to switch panels, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would have the next shot at the defense panel. She currently is in charge of the Energy and Water Development subcommittee.

Mikulski ranks after Feinstein on the seniority list and could potentially follow in Inouye’s footsteps by chairing both the full committee along with the defense subpanel.

None of the senators who might take over the defense panel, or their offices, had weighed in on the defense vacancy Wednesday afternoon after Leahy said he was not taking it.

The subcommittee’s new chairman will likely be overseeing a reduction in Pentagon spending as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close and Congress looks for spending cuts. 

Many defense analysts say that part of the reason President Obama chose former Sen. Chuck HagelChuck HagelThe US just attacked Syria. So where's Congress? Senators tear into Marines on nude photo scandal Lobbying World MORE (R-Neb.) as his next Pentagon chief was to have someone who could help cut the DOD budget. 

Defense spending could also see a sharp drop in 2013 of more the $40 billion if the across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration take effect.

— Erik Wasson contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 3:56 p.m.