Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments

Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments
© Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis MORE (D-N.Y.) is facing competing political demands and 2020 jockeying as he prepares to hand out plum committee assignments while facing a smaller minority.

With Democrats losing Senate seats in the midterms, Schumer will need to renegotiate committee assignments with Republicans before the new Congress starts in January. The in-the-weeds talks will force him to balance likely contradictory demands from rank-and-file members, lawmakers up for reelection in 2020, the caucus’s two new members and several White House hopefuls.

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Jim Manley, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Trump weighs in on UFOs in Stephanopoulos interview Impeachment will reelect Trump MORE (D-Nev.), said sorting through requests takes “a long time” for leadership because changes to one panel have a “ripple effect” in the Senate, where arcane rules define which and how many panels a member can serve on concurrently.

“This is extremely tricky stuff,” Manley said, noting that the process consists of “a whole hell of a lot of decisions.”

“There’s so many different permutations,” he added. “These things can get really byzantine.”

What the Senate’s exact ratio will look like in January is not yet known. If Democratic Senate candidate Mike Espy pulls off an upset in Tuesday’s runoff election in Mississippi, his party will hold 48 seats next year; if embattled Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.) is able to hold on, Democrats will be capped at 47.

But regardless of whether the party is left with a one- or two-seat net loss, the result will be the same for Schumer: a political headache as he tries to wade through Democrats’ intraparty jockeying for a smaller number of committee slots.

And there’s already a potential high-profile hurdle.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate Poll: Six Dems lead Trump in Florida match-ups MORE (D-Calif.) is the least senior Democratic member on the Judiciary Committee, meaning the potential 2020 White House contender could lose her seat on the panel since Republicans increased their majority in the chamber during the November midterm elections.

Democrats began 2017 with nine seats on the panel but gained an extra one, which went to Harris, in January after Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) was sworn in to succeed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida The Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida Five things to watch at Trump 2020 launch rally MORE (R-Ala.).

A spokeswoman for Harris confirmed to The Hill on Monday that the Democratic senator has told Schumer she wants to remain on the committee next year. Her office deferred other questions about potential committee negotiations to leadership, tasked with making the final decision.

Schumer, in a statement this week first reported by The Washington Post, called Harris a “terrific member” on the committee and pledged to “do everything we can to keep her there.”

The panel has provided her a coveted perch for engaging in some of the biggest fights with the Trump administration, including the battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case Supreme Court hands Virginia Democrats a win in gerrymandering case Supreme Court rules defendants can be tried on state and federal charges, potentially impacting Manafort MORE. If she keeps the seat, it will likely put her in the middle of the fight over an attorney general nominee.

Whatever decision ends up being made will have 2020 undertones. Harris is one of several Democratic senators viewed as potential presidential contenders. Two others — Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWarren introduces universal child care legislation Warren introduces universal child care legislation Booker responds to Trump's mass deportation threat: 'This is not who we are' MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Biden, Sanders to be center stage at first debate MORE (Minn.) — are also members of the Judiciary Committee.

And, in an early preview of the external pressure Schumer will likely face, progressive groups are urging leadership to keep Harris on the committee.

Demand Justice — a group whose executive director, Brian Fallon, is a former Schumer staffer — warned that it would be a “massive loss” for the panel if Harris left.

“Kamala Harris has brought a critical perspective to the overwhelmingly white and male Judiciary Committee,” the group said in a tweet Monday.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, added that Harris is the “best” and “must” remain on the panel.

“One thing we have absolutely learned is that having diverse and expert perspectives on [Judiciary] is crucial for any attempt at fair treatment under law,” Hogue said.

Whether Harris keeps her seat depends on multiple factors, none of which have been determined yet.

Other, more senior, members of the committee could decide to leave for other committees, where Democrats will have vacancies. Those panels include the Finance Committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

No Democrat has indicated that they will leave the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Hillicon Valley: GOP senator wants one agency to run tech probes | Huawei expects to lose B in sales from US ban | Self-driving car bill faces tough road ahead | Elon Musk tweets that he 'deleted' his Twitter account MORE (D-Calif.) is expected to stay on as the panel’s top Democrat.

Harris isn’t the only senator who will likely face a squeeze as Democrats try to reshuffle their members to fit into their smaller minority. Schumer will need to work in two incoming freshmen: Sens.-elect Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenFemale senators hatch plan to 'shame' Senate into voting faster Female senators hatch plan to 'shame' Senate into voting faster Lawmakers introduce legislation to improve cyber workforce funding MORE (D-Nev.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

And then there’s Jones, who is viewed as the most vulnerable Democrat heading into the 2020 elections. He has assignments on the Banking; Homeland Security; Aging; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committees.

Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' K Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers MORE (Ind.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonPoll: Six Dems lead Trump in Florida match-ups Poll: Six Dems lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE (Fla.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampLobbying World Pro-trade group targets Democratic leadership in push for new NAFTA On The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight MORE (N.D.) each lost their reelection bid in November, and what to do with their seats will likely be in the mix as leadership sorts out committee ratios.

In each of those committees besides HELP, a Democratic senator who lost reelection is currently on the panel, which could give Jones and Democratic leadership some wiggle room.

Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request Senators reach .5B deal on Trump's emergency border request MORE (R-Ky.) still need to negotiate the size and ratios of the committees. Democrats are expected to approve their panel assignments by a resolution in January.

A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment Monday on what the makeup of the committees will be next year, noting that negotiations over all of the committee ratios hadn’t yet begun.

But leadership is likely to consider a range of factors as they sort out the committee musical chairs, ranging from promises made during the campaign to diversity to regional issues that are important to a particular state.

In addition to trying to agree on the committee breakdown and working to persuade higher-ranking members to swap committee seats, Manley noted that leadership has leverage that includes doling out prime Capitol hideaway offices as they try to defuse caucus clashes.

“It’s the leadership looking at the whole chessboard,” Manley said. “The leaders got all the tools available to try to make it work for everybody.”