With the passing of Sen. Ted Kennedy, there will be some changes in who will hold some of the Senate's most powerful committee chairmanships. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut senator and good friend of the "Lion of the Senate," has in effect chaired both the Senate Banking Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee since Kennedy withdrew from the Senate in the last six months. Now he'll have to decide which seat to keep.
Either choice is fraught. Dodd's trouble now is his re-election campaign, floundering largely due to Dodd's close ties to the reviled financial industry. Leaving the banking committee to focus entirely on health-care reform might be a good way of putting the issue behind him, but a more direct approach would be staying at Banking and pushing through tough financial regulatory reform. His heart may be set on carrying Kennedy's legacy at HELP, however, and however strong and popular regulatory reform turns out to be, it's not half as a tangible to the average consumer as the health-care reform effort. (Which might not be the best thing politically, as we've seen in the last month).
What happens if Dodd goes to HELP? The ranking member on Banking is South Dakota's Tim Johnson, who is a well-known financial industry ally. It would be bad news for regulatory reform if Johnson took over the committee; he's received nearly a million dollars from the financial industry in the last 20 years and voted against credit card reform efforts earlier in the year. But he has had health problems of his own, and despite leadership support, may not wish to take on the high-profile, high-stress job. The next in line after Johnson is Rhode Island's Jack Reed, who seems to strike a much stronger pro-regulation tone.
What happens if Dodd stays at the Banking committee in an attempt to confront his problematic image head on? Iowa's Tom Harkin will take over HELP. Harkin, a stalwart progressive and union advocate who has focused on managing the labor side of HELP during Kennedy's absence just as Dodd managed health-care reform, would be in a position to bring something of a fresh voice to the health-care debate. He's an experienced legislator who would fight for the public option and the HELP bill given the chance.
The best option might be for Dodd to stay at Banking to try to salvage his reputation with strong regulation, and for Harkin to bring his focus to bear on health care. But if Dodd heads for HELP, making sure that Reed gets the Banking chairmanship -- or at least shares duties with Johnson, an option under discussion -- would become a priority for progressive advocacy groups.
Update: Wise Dylan Matthews observes that getting Harkin to give up his Agriculture Committee chair would be difficult, especially for a legislator from Iowa (A side note: It's pretty strange that Chuck Grassley and Harkin are both elected by the same constituents). The next most senior member is Maryland's long-serving liberal Barbara Milkuski, whose chief legislative interest is education policy.
-- Tim Fernholz