Senate Democrats select committee leaders

Senate Democrats announced their anticipated committee assignments Tuesday, rewarding veterans with plum assignments, placing newcomers with specific policy expertise on panels to show off their knowledge, and tabbing more vulnerable members to serve on more high-profile rostrums.

Most panels will have a ratio of 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans, the ratio agreed to in the 108th Congress, which was the last time there was a 51-49 Senate majority. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will meet later with GOP leaders to finalize those ratios.

The most coveted spots were for the Appropriations and Finance committees, with Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island regaining the Appropriations seat he lost in 2003 when the GOP gained the majority.

Reid gave up his Appropriations seat, leaving two open spots filled by Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who was an appropriator for 15 years before retiring in 2000, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Subcommittee chairmanships will be decided "in due time," said a spokeswoman for incoming Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., although it appears the Energy and Water Subcommittee helm being vacated by Reid will go to Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, currently ranking member of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is expected to replace Dorgan at Interior and Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota to take her old spot on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee.

Current Democratic Conference Secretary Debbie Stabenow of Michigan gave up her leadership spot, but was rewarded with a coveted Finance seat. The Democratic Steering Committee also added Sens. Ken Salazar of Colorado and Maria Cantwell of Washington to the committee.

The new Democratic members selected for other major panels include:

  • Agriculture: The additions of Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are likely to intensify the support for traditional farm programs. Klobuchar is likely to be a strong supporter of commodity subsidies and the sugar program. Casey likely will join Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont as an advocate for continuing the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which benefits smaller dairy producers.
  • Armed Services: Defense-heavy Virginia received a second seat with Sen.-elect Jim Webb's selection to the panel. A decorated Vietnam veteran and former Navy secretary, Webb will serve with current Armed Services Chairman John Warner of Virginia. Webb's hefty military credentials might make him one of the most powerful and outspoken junior members of the committee. Also named were Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Sen.-elect Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
  • Banking: Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii will become a member along with Casey, Brown and Sen.-elect Jon Tester of Montana. One notable freshman left off the panel is Sen.-elect Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the current ranking member of the House Financial Services Financial Institutions Subcommittee, where he has been a strong supporter of the credit union industry and critic of predatory lending practices by mortgage lenders.
  • Commerce: Klobuchar and McCaskill will join the panel along with Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, a business-friendly moderate.
  • Energy and Natural Resources: Democrats added two rural, populist freshmen -- Sanders and Tester -- along with Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
  • Environment and Public Works: Sens.-elect Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Sanders, Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island join this committee. Whitehouse defeated Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate whose swing vote helped Democrats defeat GOP environmental legislation this Congress.
  • Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: Sanders replaces his predecessor, independent Sen. James Jeffords, and is expected to be a reliable Democratic vote. Sanders, the first member of Congress to organize bus trips to Canada for seniors to buy cheaper prescription drugs, has made the cost of medication his key issue. Brown, the other freshman to join the panel, also sponsored bus trips to Canada and is currently the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee's ranking member. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has been a critic of higher education costs, was also added to the panel.
  • Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Lautenberg left the panel after he was rebuffed in his chairmanship bid, losing out to Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana will likely play a major role on any oversight or overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Obama joins the panel, as well as McCaskill and Tester, who are likely to be advocates for preserving homeland security funding for more rural areas.
  • Judiciary: Incoming Judiciary Chairman Leahy will have two new reliable liberal members -- Cardin and Whitehouse, the latter of whom served as Rhode Island attorney general. That will provide Leahy a little more breathing room to move his agenda, especially since Feinstein and Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin were two moderates Republicans tried to pick off to help move legislation when they were in the majority.
Peter Cohn, Jerry Hagstrom, Megan Scully, Darren Goode and Jessica Brady contributed to this story.
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