The New Senate Power Grid: Here’s Who Has the Juice
Policy + Politics

The New Senate Power Grid: Here’s Who Has the Juice

Flickr/C.M. Keiner

Get ready for a real shakeup in the Senate committee lineup in the wake of the GOP landslide election victory last Tuesday.

Here’s the roster so far:

  • Sen. John McCain of Arizona, arguably the toughest critic of Obama’s foreign policy and military tactics is taking over as chair of the Armed Services Committee and can be sure to be second-guessing the president’s policies in Syria, Iraq and the Ukraine for the remainder of Obama’s second term.
  • Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, an unabashed skeptic of climate change, will take the reins of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Related: They Won the Midterms—Here’s How the GOP Can Win in the Long Term   

  • Jeff Sessions, a fiscal conservative and deficit hawk who regularly carps about the administration’s spending policies, will be the new chair of the Budget Committee.
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative politician who at times has shown a bent for bipartisanship, will take charge of the Senate Finance Committee and will have a big say on the prospects for major tax and trade reform next year.
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska celebrated the Republican Party's victory last Tuesday night by holding a chair over her head and screaming "I am the chairmaaaaan!" The new chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will be well positioned to protect her state’s mining and drilling interests and to battle federal restrictions on the use of natural resources.  

Of course, most attention will be focused in the coming week on Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s ascension to the  post of Senate Majority Leader and the choice of the new Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress. But behind the scenes, the game of musical chairs likely will have big consequences in shaping the GOP majority legislative agenda.

Just as the Democrats did before them, the twenty major committees boast wide-ranging jurisdictions over virtually every aspect of government and the private economy – from defense and government spending and tax laws to agriculture, banking and commerce to education, intelligence and foreign relations.

Related: Obama, McConnell, Boehner: Wise Up for America

McConnell, the wily, veteran Republican leader, can be expected to keep close watch over his new committee chairs and the policies they adopt. Yet he insists he would reject Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s more iron-fisted style in overseeing the committees and Senate floor action. He has vowed to return to more “regular order” in the Senate. And that might mean loosening control over the committees and granting the chairs more leeway to cut deals and shape legislation.

Much depends on whether McConnell makes good on his promise. And it will also hinge on the committee chairs’ personalities, ideological bents and willingness to work across party aisles. For now, at least, it looks as if it will be very difficult to bridge the ideological and political gulf between the two parties.

“It’s going to vary from committee to committee,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. “But let’s face it.  We have a Senate that for the last five years has shown in the National Journal vote rankings no overlap between the parties.  The most conservative Democrat was to the left of the most liberal Republican.”

“Now the rift is not as stark as it is in the House, but it’s growing starker,” he added. “And the fact is, some of the most centrist, moderate Democrats were the ones who were targeted and defeated, and the Republicans who came in – the vast majority of them – have basically embraced Tea Party messages. And the senior members who are around, you’re going to have a mixed bag.”

Related: GOP: Repeal Obamacare, Then Fix the $28B Medical Device Tax

In the case of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, for example, retiring Democratic chair Tom Harkin of Iowa will be succeeded by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a center-right legislator and former Tennessee governor and university president who has frequently advocated more bipartisanship in the Senate. By contrast, Democratic Environment and Public Works Committee chair Barbara Boxer of California – one of the most prominent liberals in the Senate – will be replaced by Inhofe, one of the most conservative and blunt-talking members of Congress.

“I’m not afraid of controversy,” Inhofe once said, according to the Almanac of American Politics. “I’m not afraid to say what’s on my mind and what’s on a lot of people’s minds.” He once accused former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner of using “Gestapo tactics” to advance Clinton administration policies to clean up the atmosphere and water.

In a similar vein, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, the liberal Democrat who has chaired the Senate Budget Committee and crafted a compromise budget late last year with House Budget Chief Paul Ryan (R-WI), will be replaced by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), an ardent anti-deficit champion who is certain to seek tougher spending restraints. “With some of these committees, like the situation on Budget, you’re moving pretty radically in a different direction,” Ornstein said.

Here is a rundown of some of the major changes in Senate committee leadership, based on a summary and analysis published by CQ Roll Call:

Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Pat Roberts of Kansas survived a bruising reelection challenge to earn a spot atop the committee with greatest importance to farmers in his home state. Because Roberts, a former House member, has been steeped in agriculture issues for decades and has influenced passage of just about every major farm bill in memory.

Appropriations Thad Cochran is back from a near political death experience in Mississippi after surviving  a tough Tea Party challenge in his GOP primary; now he is expected to assert his seniority over the committee’s current top Republican, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama in order to chair the committee in the 114th Congress.  Cochran has steered untold millions of dollars of political pork to his economically depressed state over the years and served as chair in the 109th Congress.

Armed Services Under the leadership of John McCain – a Vietnam War era decorated hero and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee – the committee will take aggressive stances against President Obama’s national security plans and priorities, potentially creating a roadblock for both the president and the Pentagon. McCain is certain to urge a more hawkish stance against ISIS, and to provide more military assistance to Ukraine in its battle with Russian-backed rebel forces.

Related: McCain: Give Obama More War Powers Against ISIS

Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs With the GOP back in the majority, the committee’s focus will likely change sharply with Richard C. Shelby of Alabama at the helm. For example, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law will be “squarely in the crosshairs” of the committee,” according to CQ Roll Call.

Budget  As the likely next chair, Jeff Sessions will face a tough challenge in building support among a narrow and potentially divided GOP majority to approve a fiscal 2016 budget resolution – and then finding a compromise with the House Republicans.  Sessions and his likely House counterpart, Tom Price (R-GA), “are likely to write reconciliation instructions into their budgets, allowing controversial changes in tax and spending policy to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority,” according to CQ Roll Call.

Commerce, Science & Transportation  John Thune of South Dakota will almost certainly assume the chair of the Commerce Committee from the retiring Democratic chair, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. The youthful, articulate Thune is a member of the Senate GOP leadership and is considered a rising star in his party.

Energy & Natural Resources  Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski has long coveted the gavel of the committee her father once led. She began laying the groundwork in early 2013 by introducing her energy policy blueprint looking ahead to the next decade of domestic

energy production and consumption. Since then, she has issued white papers “arguing for  federal policies that cohesively promote electric reliability and efficiency and that boost exports of natural gas and oil in an era of abundant supplies,” according to CQ Roll Call

Related: The 5 Best and 5 Worst Regulations in Dodd-Frank

Finance  Veteran Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah will take control of the Finance Committee amid growing talk about major tax reform in the coming year – or at least changes to the corporate tax rates to try to spark economic growth and discourage companies from stashing their taxable income overseas.

Hatch, who proposed an alternative to President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law this year, is expected to focus on health care. “The Utah Republican will be able to score one easy victory — a quick repeal of the medical device sales tax that helps pay for it,” according to CQ Roll Call.

Environment and Public Works  GOP members of the committee will take a much more aggressive stance against the EPA’s regulatory agenda with Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma back as chairman of the committee, which he last chaired from 2003 until 2007.  But the global warming skeptic’s main priority will be advancing a bipartisan, multiyear transportation reauthorization bill in 2015.  While Inhofe and ranking  Democrat  Barbara Boxer don’t agree on much politically, the two  have collaborated  in the past on infrastructure spending issues – and are likely to work together again on a new highway trust fund bill next year.

This article was updated at 9:50 Sunday morning to make clear that Sen. Lisa Murkowski was celebrating the Republican takeover of the Senate.

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