WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, what happens in the legislative trenches can make or break a bill. Thus, who is chosen to chair the congressional committees is of crucial importance not only to setting national policy but to a member of Congress's ability to deliver on promises to his or her constituents.
While the 105th Congress won't begin its session until January, senators of both parties spent the last two days ardently angling for committee assignments. Senate committee chairs are generally decided by seniority, but GOP rules permit a senator to chair only one standing committee. The result: Democratic and Republican caucuses filled jobs on what are considered the 12 most important committees.
Among the new chairmen are Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who assumes the mantle of the key Appropriations Committee. Sen. John McCain of Arizona takes over the Commerce Committee, relinquishing his chairmanship of the Indian Affairs Committee.
Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee will take over the Government Affairs Committee, which will investigate recent campaign-financing irregularities at the Democratic National Committee and elsewhere. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, one of the more liberal GOP senators, takes over the Labor and Human Resources Committee.
In a surprise move on the Democratic side, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware relinquished his position as ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee to become ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. As the administration's chief defender there, he will cross swords with conservative chairman Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a critic of the administration on foreign policy.
Senator Biden's move set off a game of Democratic musical chairs. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont will take Biden's post on Judiciary, while Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa will assume Senator Leahy's position on the Agriculture Committee. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan will become ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.