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Democrats reshuffle Hill leadership

Some long-time committee heads are replaced in order to advance Obama’s agenda.

By Staff writer / November 12, 2008

Out? From left, Rep. John Dingell, Sen. Robert Byrd, and Sen. Joseph Liberman.

From left: Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI, Susan Walsh/AP/File, Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

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Washington

As Team Obama jump starts its presidential transition, there’s a parallel transition under way on Capitol Hill to gear up for a new administration.

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After eight years of playing defense to the Bush administration, Democrats are shifting to what leaders describe as a brisk offense aimed to move the priorities of a stronger Democratic majority and a Democrat in the White House.

The pending agenda ranges from relief for the economy to an overhaul of the nation’s health, tax, regulatory, and energy policies.

At issue is whether some senior Democrats – viewed as out of line with the legislative agenda of a new president or otherwise unfit for the job – get to keep their gavels.

The first to step down was Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee for 50 years and its chairman for the last 10. The longest-serving senator, he is also president pro-tem of the Senate and third in presidential line of succession (after the vice president and the Speaker of the House).

When rumors flew that he might be asked to resign by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Senator Byrd, who is battling health issues, wrote a letter to colleagues urging their support. But on Nov. 7, he said he would step down, effective Jan. 6.

“I want to stress that this is a decision I made only after much personal soul searching, and after being sure of the substantial Democratic pickup of seats in the Senate,” he said in a statement. “I am now confident that stepping aside as Chairman will not adversely impact my home state of West Virginia.”

Such a key change at the top of a powerful committee sets up a shift in committee leadership across the Senate expected to line up well with a new administration.

“Harry Reid could not start the 111th Congress with a nonfunctioning chairman,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “There had been a lot of agitation throughout the spring to do something about Byrd, but senators are very, very reluctant to move against a colleague.”

The next big decision, expected to be resolved by a vote of the Democratic caucus next week, is whether Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, whose vote gave Democrats their majority in 2006, will retain chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Senator Lieberman’s support of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, including a speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, riled Democrats on and off Capitol Hill.
But with Democrats short of the 60 votes they need to break a Republican filibuster, party leaders don’t want to break ties with Senator Lieberman altogether. Democrats now hold 57 seats in the Senate, with three races undecided.

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