Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments

Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments
© Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Pelosi, Schumer vow climate action: 'It is an imperative' 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 ReidWhite House seeks to shield Biden from GOP attacks on crime issue Lobbying world Warner backing 'small carve-out' on filibuster for voting rights 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 HarrisWhy in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? Want to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act 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 StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements 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 KavanaughAn obscure Supreme Court ruling is a cautionary tale of federal power Murkowski leans into record ahead of potentially bruising reelection bid Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump 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 BookerHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada Biden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks 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 FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 RosenWestern US airports face jet fuel shortage Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor The Hill's Morning Report - Biden renews families plan pitch; Senate prepares to bring infrastructure package to floor 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 McCaskillGiuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri McCaskill shares new July 4 family tradition: Watching Capitol riot video Joe Manchin's secret MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySupreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Republicans fret over divisive candidates Everybody wants Joe Manchin MORE (Ind.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTom Brady to Biden: '40 percent of the people still don't think we won' Rubio, Demings rake in cash as Florida Senate race heats up How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation MORE (Fla.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampJoe Manchin's secret Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda Effective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests 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 McConnellMcConnell: 'It never occurred to me' convincing Americans to get vaccinated would be difficult The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal 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.”