If the Senate changes hands in Tuesday's elections, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee could see very little change if Democrats embrace an Independent as chairman. If not, the leadership decision could become a game of musical chairs.
The committee, led by chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has enjoyed a history of bipartisan cooperation that argues for a smooth transition and relatively minor changes in priorities if the Democrats gain control.
Lieberman has been tied up in a close race for his seat, running as an Independent against Democratic challenger Ned Lamont. Leslie Phillips, the committee's Democratic spokeswoman, said Friday that if he wins his race and the Democrats take the Senate, Lieberman would caucus with the Democratic Party.
Party leaders have promised that Lieberman would retain his seniority and committee assignments, Phillips said, which would put him in the chairman's seat.
Phillips described Collins-Lieberman committee leadership as "extremely bipartisan," and said that as chairman, Lieberman would continue to focus on the issues he has stressed over the past two years, including scrutinizing the Homeland Security Department and monitoring reform at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A Collins spokeswoman confirmed that she will continue to lead her party on the committee in the next Congress, and listed priorities for oversight that largely match the areas where Lieberman has focused, including investigations into fraud, waste and abuse.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not publicly confirmed any promises he might have made to Lieberman and his office did not return a call on the subject Friday.
Some have suggested that Lieberman could be punished for falling out of line with the party by supporting the war in Iraq and challenging Connecticut voters' choice of Lamont to represent them.
Senate committee chairmanships are generally awarded by tenure in the chamber, but party leadership has leeway to adjust the lineup. Other senators with longer tenure than Lieberman could come forward to claim committee leadership, though it would be unusual for someone to lead a committee without having first served on it.
Some have said that Democratic leaders would likely offer Lieberman the chairmanship, in part to help lock in his vote in a Senate that will hinge on a narrow margin no matter which party controls the agenda. If the committee chairmanship should be thrown open by a decision against him, Sens. Carl Levin from Michigan and Daniel Akaka from Hawaii stand next in line.
Levin, however, would be more likely to focus on a possible chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which he is the ranking member. Akaka, who heads the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee that oversees federal worker issues, also is also ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Next in line within the committee is Sen. Tom Carper from Delaware, who is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, as well as on an Environment and Public Works Subcommittee.
Steven Katz, who served as a counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee under then-Chairman John Glenn, D-Ohio, said that regardless of which party takes control of the Senate, campaign calls for increased executive branch oversight will likely lead to more of it during the next Congress.
As a new crop of Democratic senators is voted in on calls for scrutiny, he said, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee would be the logical place for that to be carried out.