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.
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.
Lieberman met with majority leader Reid last Thursday, and both men left the meeting saying discussions are ongoing.
This week, Democratic leaders, including President-elect Obama, have played down the rift with Lieberman. “I know Joe Lieberman very well. He is a senior member of the Senate. He is on Armed Services, if something happens to the chairman he becomes chairman. If something happens to the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, he becomes chairman,” said Reid on CNN’s Late Edition on Sunday.
“So he is a senior member.... I would not be majority leader but for his vote.” he said. “But the caucus has a decision to make and they’re going to make it.”
A congressional aide close to Lieberman says that the senator is “considering his options” but that losing chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs panel was “not acceptable.”
One chairmanship decidedly not on the blocks is Sen. Edward Kennedy’s leadership of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Despite the Massachusetts senator’s health issues, Democrats say they expect Senator Kennedy to return to chair the panel in January, and they have prepared a special office for him just off the Senate floor.
On the House side, a leadership battle is shaping up on the Energy and Commerce committee between its chairman, 27-term Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and 17-term Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, a liberal Democrat and current chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government reform.
Mr. Dingell’s defense of the auto industry and opposition to broad climate change legislation in the past put him at odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and environmental groups at the base of the Democratic Party.
“This is a sea-change election and Democrats want to be sure that the chairman and chairwomen line up with the apparent mandate of the election,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.
“The environment is going to be one of the issues and here is John Dingell standing in the way,” he says.
But Dingell is contesting that view of his record and fighting for his chairmanship. In a Nov. 6 letter to colleagues, Dingell said his panel had shown that it is capable of moving “enormously complex and difficult legislation” – and that it had just released a 461-page discussion draft on climate change in October.