WASHINGTON, D.C. — To those living beyond the Capitol and K Street, speculation over Senate committee assignments may seem a waste of time, but to Democrat Al Franken, his potential appointments might prove nearly as important as winning Minnesota’s ongoing Senate race.
If the satirist-turned-politician ultimately prevails in his extended battle with former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, he would enter the Senate not only as a well-known liberal firebrand but also as the key — filibuster-breaking — 60th Democratic vote.
Such an uncommon situation promises to draw an uncommon amount of scrutiny, and Franken’s potential committee assignments could be crucial to his ability to reconnect with a frustrated constituency and, thus, to his re-election prospects.
“There is a kind of collective good in giving Al Franken particularly advantageous committee assignments,” says Ross K. Baker a professor of political science at Rutgers, who last year was scholar-in-residence in the Office of the Majority Leader. “People are going to want to accommodate him, perhaps at their own discomfort, because he [makes] the filibuster-proof majority.”
That said, this is the U.S. Senate, a place where egos often outsize the accommodations (a point most recently evidenced by newly turned Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter’s committee seniority demotions).
“Quality of life is [also] an important thing to a senator,” Ross adds. “[So] they are not going to twist themselves into outrageous contortions to accommodate Franken.”
Sen. Harry Reid calls the shots
At this juncture, it’s anyone’s guess, except Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who gets to play the role of casting director in this particular D.C. drama.
Until the official word comes down from on high, and until there is an actual election certificate in a hand belonging to either Franken or Coleman, then all this is just speculation.
There is, however, at least one committee axiom, according to Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie. “Everybody wants to be on a money committee,” he says.
While most Senate freshmen don’t get to breathe the rarefied air on the Finance and Appropriations committees, it is worth noting that such appointments have happened.
Reid, for instance, joined Appropriations as a freshman senator in 1987. Meanwhile, “first-years” on the Finance Committee have included Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana (now its chair), Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa (now ranking chair of the Finance Committee), and Minnesota’s Eugene McCarthy.
The practice of putting Senate freshmen on at least one prominent committee began when Lyndon Johnson, the future president, became majority leader in the 1950s, according to Ritchie.
Freshman senators can land key committee spots
“It used to be that freshman senators were put on very low committees, and they had to wait until they had sufficiently impressed the other senators,” Ritchie says.
“But, Johnson felt that he could use junior senators to his advantage. They would have more time on the committee, and would be better for it, but they would also owe him something.”
In the beginning of this session, before Pennsylvania’s Specter jumped to the Democrats, Senate leaders planned committee assignments that assumed Franken would be seated and that Democrats would have a 59-seat majority. The agreement gave Democrats in the Senate a three-seat advantage on most committees with a four-seat edge on Armed Services and Appropriations.
Meanwhile, Republican senators were appointed to Coleman’s former committee posts as “placeholders” in the event that he ultimately won. Coleman had served on the Foreign Relations, Small Business, Agriculture, and Homeland Security committees and on the Special Committee on Aging.
Open seats remained on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the Special Committee on Aging, and the Committee on Indian Affairs.
The Health Committee vacancy has widely been viewed as Franken’s most likely “A” committee assignment.
Senate committees are divided into three categories according to relative importance: Classes A, B and C. Senators are technically limited to serving on two Class A committees and one Class B committee.
There are exceptions, of course. Klobuchar, for instance, is among a small group of senators who sit on four Class A committees. Her appointments include Agriculture, Environment, Commerce and Judiciary.
Steven Smith, a congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis, says that Franken would be wise to push for Health because it will be a key committee in public policy moving forward. Also, he notes, Minnesota currently is not represented on it, and it is not considered to be an overly partisan committee, where Franken might risk being cast early on as a divisive figure.
Health committee would be prominent spot for Franken
“I would think that Health would put him in the middle of the most important debate, and he would be on a committee that was important to his core constituency, yet you can keep your head down on that committee a little more when you choose to,” Smith says.
But, despite the relative stagnation in Minnesota’s political landscape, life and legislation in the Senate continue to move on.
As the panel begins hammering out comprehensive health care legislation in what likely will be a grueling next few months, Senate leadership decided Thursday that the committee could no longer be short-handed.
At Reid’s request, the Senate temporarily appointed Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to the panel, supposedly pending the result of the Minnesota Senate race. For the time being, this means that Rhode Island will now have two senators helping to shape what most likely will be the most sweeping health care reform bill in recent history.
Besides vacancies, committee ratios also will be taken into consideration. With Specter a Democrat, the margins have widened on Appropriations, Judiciary, Veterans Affairs, Aging, and Environment and Public Works. Because Republicans did not replace Specter, the Democrats in effect gained two seats on each of these committees, giving them a five-seat advantage on Judiciary and the Environment and Public Works — two key panels moving forward on a new Supreme Court justice to fill David Souter’s seat and on climate change legislation, respectively.
The last time the Democrats had a 60-seat majority in the Senate was in the 94th Congress (1975-1977). At the time, they had a six-seat advantage on Appropriations and Commerce, a four-seat advantage on Agriculture, Environment and Public Works, Finance, and Armed Services, and a three-seat advantage on Foreign Relations, Banking and Judiciary.
Maintaining committee ratios as much as possible will be a key issue for Republicans, who have seen their congressional presence plummet.
Potential ‘placeholder’ committee members
In order to keep ratios the same, Reid also could choose to replace current committee members with Franken, if he is seated. In that case, committee members like Whitehouse would have known in advance if they were potential placeholders.
Sen. Ron Wyden D-Ore., for instance, was widely understood to be a potential placeholder for Franken on Judiciary, according to a Senate aide who asked not to be named because circumstances have changed since the session began and may no longer apply.
Indeed, Klobuchar now sits on the committee. Having two senators from the same state and party on Judiciary would be very rare, according to Ritchie, although Wisconsin Democrats Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold sit on the committee now. So, it is certainly possible. It’s unclear, though, how Specter’s move to the committee’s Democratic side might change matters.
Smith, however, warns that Judiciary, which is considered to be a very partisan committee, may be risky for Franken.
“Judiciary is a hot-button-issue committee,” Smith said, adding, “The major obstacle to Franken’s re-election [if he were seated] is that he might be perceived as being too divisive, someone who picks sides and divides the country, rather than looking for solutions.”
If Franken were to land on Judiciary, however, he might also be able to work the impending Supreme Court justice nomination — and the media attention it will garner — to his advantage.
The Agriculture Committee, which Coleman sat on with Klobuchar, would also be a natural fit for a senator from Minnesota. But, counterintuitive committees, such as Armed Services, might also help Franken expand his voter base, Smith says.
“You see a Ted Kennedy on the Armed Services Committee, and it has worked to his advantage that as a liberal Democrat, [he] knows something about national security,” says Smith.
“I think he needs to look for something that helps him move a little bit to the middle,” he says. “And be a little less predictable.”
Of course, what Franken might want and what is actually possible this far into the session might not be the same. Only time, and Harry Reid, will tell.
Cynthia Dizikes is MinnPost’s Washington correspondent and covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on developments out of Washington that are important to Minnesota readers.