- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A shake-up of committee chairmanships is clearing the way for a more liberal, Democrat-led Congress to work with President-elect Barack Obama as he strives to turn key campaign promises into policy.

Senate Democratic leaders are poised to replace the chairmen of the Appropriations and Homeland Security committees with more-liberal members. Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, one of the chamber’s most liberal members, meanwhile, is expected to be replaced as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee by one of several senators with solidly liberal voting records.

On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California is trying to wrest control of the Energy and Commerce Committee from Rep. John D. Dingell. The Michigan Democrat’s close ties to automakers and the utilities have put him at odds with the party’s liberal leadership - including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California - over climate-change initiatives such as higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and caps on carbon emissions.

Mr. Waxman tallied an 84.5 percent liberal voting record compared with Mr. Dingell’s 73.5 percent rating, as calculated by National Journal’s vote rankings for 2007.

The Californian also has a reputation as a fierce partisan and spent the past two years running the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as it pummeled the Bush administration with inquests into its conduct of the Iraq war, White House political operations and regulatory failures behind the financial collapse.

Mr. Dingell, pressing fellow Democrats to support him, cited Mrs. Pelosi’s remark that “the country must be governed from the middle.”

He sent Mr. Obama a letter, which his committee released Tuesday, pleading the case that he would be an eager partner in implementing the universal health care plan on which the senator from Illinois campaigned.

“I am eager to work with you to make this happen, and I appreciate that your transition team has been in contact with my staff to chart the path forward,” Mr. Dingell said. “We share common ground on key principles for reforming the nation’s healthcare system.”

Nevertheless, getting him out of the way could help advance Mr. Obama’s agenda on energy and climate change.

Each of the committees in question will be at the center of the Obama administration’s plans to reshape the federal government, take over the war on terror, reshape diplomatic relations and confront climate change.

After weeks of speculation that Senate Democratic leaders were pressuring 90-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia - the longest-serving senator in U.S. history - to step down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he gave up the post Friday. The move made room for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii to climb into the top spot.

Mr. Inouye, 84, chalked up a 71.7 percent liberal voting record last year in National Journal’s score, compared with Mr. Byrd’s 64.3 percent liberal rating.

“A new day has dawned in Washington, and that is a good thing,” Mr. Byrd said in explaining his decision to make way for Mr. Inouye. “For my part, I believe that it is time for a new day at the top of the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

On the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is desperately clinging to the chairmanship as a growing chorus of Democratic calls for his ouster.

If he loses the post, each of his likely successors will have a more liberal voting record than Mr. Lieberman’s 57.5 percent National Journal rating.

Next in line is Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, with a 76.5 percent liberal score, but he is unlikely to give up his chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee. He is followed by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka with a 73.3 percent liberal rating, although the 84-year-old senator from Hawaii would have to reconcile giving up the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

That leaves the committee’s fourth-highest-ranking Democrat, Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, whose 60.2 percent ranking makes him somewhat more liberal than Mr. Lieberman.

Mr. Lieberman, who won re-election as an independent in 2006 after losing the Democratic primary because of his support for the Iraq war, spurned Democrats this year by backing Republican Sen. John McCain for president and bashing Mr. Obama during the campaign.

With the majority picking up at least six seats in the election, the party no longer needs Mr. Lieberman to cast the tie-breaking vote for Democratic control of the chamber, and the party does not need to placate him with a coveted chairman’s seat.

“There is a lot of ill will out there,” a senior Democratic aide said. “That will be hashed out in caucus, and if it comes to a vote it will be a secret vote.”

Mr. Obama is staying out of the chairmanship fracas, at least publicly.

“We aren’t going to referee decisions about who should or should not be a committee chair,” Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said. “President-elect Obama looks forward to working with anyone to move the country forward. We’d be happy to have Senator Lieberman caucus with the Democrats. We don’t hold any grudges.”

Mr. Biden’s swearing-in as vice president makes room for either Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts or Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin to step up to the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Neither approaches Mr. Biden’s 94.2 percent liberal voting record, but they both register solidly on the left.

Mr. Kerry scored a 79.5 percent liberal rating and Mr. Feingold garnered a 85.5 percent liberal grade in National Journal’s 2007 rankings.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who is next in order of seniority to Mr. Biden on the committee, said he will not give up his chairmanship of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has been at the forefront of addressing the meltdown of housing and financial markets.

The chairmanship would first fall to Mr. Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee. But he is a leading candidate for a top job in the Obama administration, possibly secretary of state. His departure would leave the job to Mr. Feingold, a fellow opponent of the Iraq war and ready partner in Mr. Obama’s promised rewrite of foreign diplomacy.

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