Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments

Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments
© Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP 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 ReidThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Doctors are dying by suicide every day and we are not talking about it Impeachment trial throws curveball into 2020 race 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 HarrisBooker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash Yang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations 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 StrangeState 'certificate of need' laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries Roy Moore trails Republican field in Alabama 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 KavanaughHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Supreme Court denies Trump request to immediately resume federal executions House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law 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 BookerBooker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden: All-white debate not representative of party, but 'you can't dictate' nominee Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events There's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down 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 FeinsteinGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat 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 RosenHillicon Valley: Facebook to remove mentions of potential whistleblower's name | House Dems demand FCC action over leak of location data | Dem presses regulators to secure health care data Senators introduce bill to create 'parity' among broadband programs Senators introduce cybersecurity workforce expansion bill 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 McCaskillGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle MSNBC's McCaskill: Trump used 'his fat thumbs' to try to intimidate Yovanovitch GOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world MORE (Ind.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonBottom Line Bottom Line Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE (Fla.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa 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 McConnellBiden: 'No party should have too much power' Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills 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.”