- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010

Surprise retirement announcements by two high-ranking Senate Democrats this week started a game of musical chairs to fill top seats in the committee system.

The exit of Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, next year sets up a line of succession in which the new chairman would be Sen. Tim Johnson, the only Senate Democrat to vote against new laws that cracked down on abuses by credit card companies.

On the Indian Affairs Committee, the retirement of its chairman, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, creates a scenario in which two-term Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington could leapfrog over four other Democrats with more seniority to take over the committee.

The reassigning of Democratic chairmen depends on the party retaining a majority in the November midterm elections, which is widely expected.

But the election could further rock the Democratic hierarchy, with tough races threatening to unseat Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The ascent to chairman by Mr. Johnson, who has been recovering from a 2007 brain surgery, highlights how a change of chairman can affect the legislative process. Mr. Johnson, whose home state of South Dakota is also headquarters to Citigroup Inc.’s credit-card operation and who is an advocate for rural community banks, stands in stark contrast to the Wall Street-allied Mr. Dodd.

Financial industry lobbyist Peter Peyser said a switch to a Johnson chairmanship of the banking committee would be “a significant change,” though it would come after the anticipated passage this year of major regulatory overhaul for Wall Street.

“Dodd certainly comes from a constituency and has a background that is much closer to the industry,” said Mr. Peyser, managing principal of the lobbying firm Blank Rome Government Relations. “It’s hard to predict where a Tim Johnson chairmanship might go. He’d probably be more aligned with consumer interests.”

Mr. Johnson “is next in line and is up to any task given to him here in the Senate,” said Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher, adding that he mostly has recovered from the 2007 brain hemorrhage and is “as sharp as ever.”

Miss Cantwell would take control at Indian Affairs because all of the Democrats between her and the chairmanship already head up other committees.

The Democrat next in line for chairman is Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who is chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, followed by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, and Mr. Johnson.

Cantwell spokesman John Diamond declined to comment on the possibility of the senator rising to chairman, saying those decisions are far off and any discussions would be purely speculative.

The shake-up of chairman would follow similar turmoil last year with the departure of Vice President Joseph R. Biden and the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mr. Biden’s White House job left a vacancy at the top of the Foreign Affairs Committee that was filled by Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

The death of Mr. Kennedy, who was chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, forced a rearrangement in which Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, took over the health committee and Mrs. Lincoln moved up to head the agriculture panel.

The change put Mrs. Lincoln, an opponent of climate-change legislation and clean-energy mandates, in charge of a committee with jurisdiction over major elements of energy reform and climate policy.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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