Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments

Schumer walking tightrope with committee assignments
© Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief Postal Service says it lost .2 billion over three-month period 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 ReidMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill Kamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill 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 campaign says no VP pick yet after bike trail quip Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Biden edges closer to VP pick: Here's who's up and who's down 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 StrangeSessions hits back at Trump days ahead of Alabama Senate runoff The biggest political upsets of the decade State 'certificate of need' laws need to go 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 KavanaughMcConnell has 17-point lead over Democratic challenger McGrath: poll Davis: My recommendation for vice president on Biden ticket Kavanaugh urged Supreme Court to avoid decisions on Trump finances, abortion: report 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 BookerSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Lobbying world 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 FeinsteinSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing Democrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks 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 RosenSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Democrats call for expedited hearing for Trump's public lands nominee Democrats call for McConnell to bring Voting Rights Act to floor in honor of Lewis 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 McCaskillDemocratic-linked group runs ads in Kansas GOP Senate primary Trump mocked for low attendance at rally Missouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William Nelson Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in NASA names DC headquarters after agency's first Black female engineer Mary W. Jackson NASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon MORE (Fla.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA 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 McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach 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.”