Democrats Consider Who Will Succeed Kennedy Atop Health Committee
By Paul Kane
Democrats remained uncertain Wednesday who would succeed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as chairman of the health committee, as his responsibilities have been divided among several members of the panel since he was diagnosed in May 2008 with brain cancer.
The panel -- formally known as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- is typically referred by insiders as the HELP committee, in part to signal its broad reach into most domestic issues. Kennedy ruled as the top Democrat on the committee for more than two decades, using the perch to serve as the Senate's lead agitator for increasing the minimum wage, expanding civil rights to cover the handicapped and gay Americans, and for promoting what he long called "the cause of my life" -- universal health care.
A new chairman won't be formally selected until senators return from their August recess. Legislative business for the fall session is slated to begin Sept. 8.
The first Democrat in line in committee seniority now is Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded the health-care legislation through the HELP committee in June and July.
Dodd, however, already chairs the banking committee, and he would have to give up that gavel in order to take up the legislative legacy of Kennedy. Dodd's banking committee has placed him in the spotlight of the most intense legislative battles of the last year, including housing legislation in the summer of 2008, the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry and an ongoing effort to rewrite the regulatory makeup of federal agencies overseeing banks and financial services industry.
Dodd told reporters Wednesday that he would ponder his options over the coming days. "I haven't given that a second's worth of thought," Dodd said of assuming Kennedy's chairmanship. "I really don't have an answer to that really."
If Dodd were to pass on taking the HELP chairmanship, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has the next chance to take over the panel. But Harkin already chairs the Agriculture Committee, which is of critical importance to his home state, and Harkin is not believed to be interested in the HELP gavel.
That would leave Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) next in line to chair the committee. She has already been overseeing the education portfolio of that panel in Kennedy's stead, and she led the passage of major reforms to Pell grants last year. The HELP committee is slated to consider a reauthorization of the landmark No Child Left Behind legislation that Kennedy co-authored in 2002.
If Dodd were to take Kennedy's chairmanship, that would set up another key decision for Democrats, about who succeeds him at the banking committee. Behind Dodd in seniority is Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who returned to the chamber after suffering a brain aneurysm in December 2006. Next in line after Johnson is Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
August 26, 2009; 1:50 PM ET
Categories: Dem. Leaders , Senate
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