Top Dems rebel on Specter
Senior Senate Democrats are objecting to the deal Majority Leader Harry Reid made with Sen. Arlen Specter, saying they will vote against letting the former Republican shoot to the top of powerful committees after he switches parties.
Several Democrats are furious with Sen. Reid (D-Nev.) for agreeing to let Specter (Pa.) keep his seniority, accrued over more than 28 years as a GOP senator. That agreement would allow Specter to leap past senior Democrats on powerful panels — including the Appropriations and Judiciary committees.
“I won’t be happy if I don’t get to chair something because of Arlen Specter,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who sits on the Appropriations Committee with Specter and is fifth in seniority among Democrats, behind Chairman Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa). “I’m happy with the Democratic order, but I don’t want to be displaced because of Arlen Specter,” she said.
Specter’s first full day in Washington after turning the Capitol upside down with his decision to switch parties suggested a lonely future awaits in the upper chamber.
While he received a formal welcome Wednesday to the Democratic Party at the White House from President Obama and Vice President Biden, senior Senate Democrats exchanged phone calls to voice their objections to Reid’s gambit and one lawmaker said Specter should be happy with a committee seat at the “end of the dais.” Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and two other members of the Senate Republican leadership asked Specter to refund campaign donations.
One senior Democratic lawmaker told The Hill that the Democratic Conference will vote against giving the longtime Pennsylvania Republican seniority over lawmakers like Harkin, Mikulski and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) when they hold their organizational meeting after the 2010 election.
Under his deal with Reid, Specter would jump ahead of all but a few Democrats when it comes time to dole out committee chairmanships and assignments.
“That’s his deal and not the caucus’s,” the senior lawmaker said of Reid’s agreement with Specter.
The lawmaker requested anonymity because the issue of Specter’s seniority is “a sensitive subject.” The lawmaker said it would be OK if Specter joined his panel as long as he “sat at the end of the dais” with junior members.
Since Reid and Specter announced their deal, Senate insiders have speculated that Specter could bump Harkin after the election from his chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee or return to be chairman of Judiciary if the current chairman, Leahy, takes over the gavel at Appropriations. Specter was chairman of Judiciary in the 109th Congress when Republicans controlled the chamber, and ushered through the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
But the senior Democratic lawmaker disputed these scenarios: “That can’t happen. Seniority is decided by the caucus.”
A key factor that prompted Specter’s switch was a review of polling data that suggested he couldn’t beat former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in the 2010 Republican primary. His new colleagues are not forgetting that.
“He was going to lose to Toomey and we were going to beat Toomey,” said the senior Democrat. “We did him a favor by allowing him to remain in the Senate.”
But a source close to Reid told The Hill that Specter’s party switch brings Democrats “one step closer to the 60 votes necessary to choke off Republican filibusters.” The source said Democrats have close to a year and a half to resolve seniority disputes before setting committee assignments for 2011 and beyond.
“No one is going to lose committee or subcommittee chairmanships this Congress,” said the source, who added that the negative light Specter’s move has cast on the GOP will help Democrats pick up even more seats in the next election.
“We have a long time to sort this out,” said the source.
Specter announced Tuesday that he would be able to keep his seniority in the Democratic Conference.
“In discussing that issue with Sen. Reid, the fair approach which we both agreed to was to be where I would be had I been a Democrat coming into the Senate with my election in 1980,” Specter told reporters. “So you can take a look at the charts and figure out exactly where I’d be.”
That would give Specter more seniority than all but three Democrats on the Appropriations Committee: Inouye, Leahy and Byrd.
If Inouye, who is 84 years old, stepped down as Appropriations chairman and Leahy succeeded him Specter would be the most senior Democrat on the powerful Judiciary panel, ahead of Feinstein and Wisconsin Sens. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold.
Mikulski, who is serving her fourth Senate term and may find herself junior to Specter on the Appropriations Committee, said she hadn’t discussed her objections with other senators.
“We cannot bump the existing chairmen or the existing order to become chairmen,” said Mikulski. “I am the only senator of my seniority that doesn’t chair a full committee.”
Harkin buttonholed Inouye on the Senate floor Tuesday evening, giving Inouye an earful of his concerns, according to a senator who overheard the conversation.
Reid told reporters Tuesday that Specter, who plans to change his party registration to Democrat in May, would not bump any Democrats from plum committee posts this year or next. But Reid said Specter could invoke his seniority at the start of the 112th Congress.
“Of course, in a year and a half, at the start of every Congress, it’s a new game and Sen. Specter has seniority over a number of people on committees he wants to serve on,” Reid said.
An immediate question facing Democratic leaders is what to do with his current committee assignments.
By switching parties, Specter has given up his Republican-assigned seats on the Appropriations, Environment and Public Works, Judiciary and Veterans’ Affairs committees.
To claim a seat on the Democratic side, Specter would have to bump a sitting Democrat or get one to give up the slot.
The other option would be for Reid and McConnell to renegotiate committee ratios. Reid could argue that the addition of Specter and a likely pickup of the contested Minnesota seat would warrant new ratios.
Or the leaders could agree to add one Democratic and one Republican seat to a few committees.
Leahy may create a new Judiciary subcommittee for Specter to chair the rest of this Congress.
Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), one of the few Democrats who would have more seniority than Specter under Reid’s deal, said that Democratic leaders are in the midst of discussing Specter’s committee assignments.
Some Democratic senators want only to count Specter’s time in the Democratic Party toward his seniority in the caucus. That would place him behind Sens. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
Specter would still be more senior than Al Franken, who is expected to be seated as Minnesota’s junior senator later this year.
Specter, however, is confident that his deal will hold.
“I feel comfortable relying on the arrangements I made with Sen. Reid. I’ve talked to many Democratic senators in the past couple of days and they have all greeted me with open arms,” Specter said in a statement to The Hill. http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/top-dems-rebel-on-specter-2009-04-29_2.html