Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Senate Democrats interested in White House bids will get tons of free publicity starting in January with new and prominent posts on key panels.

Senators hoping to pontificate on Iraq, global warming or health care policy will enjoy multiple hearings — some televised live — and the amplified political microphone that comes with being in the majority party.

Among the five Democratic senators who are widely expected to seek their party’s presidential nomination, three will hold chairmanships when the 110th Congress opens Thursday.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware will assume the most prominent post of the bunch as incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Already, the presidential aspirant has promised three weeks of hearings on the Iraq war, complete with testimony from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Biden last month announced he will fight President Bush if he proposes sending a surge of troops to Iraq, calling such a move “escalation.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts will be chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut will lead the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Mr. Kerry said a lack of health insurance for small-business workers is one of the country’s greatest challenges and said his committee will look at the tax code for small firms as well as loans for minority, female and veteran entrepreneurs.

“Small businesses are the heart of the American economy and the place where American dreams rise and fall every day,” said Mr. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who is considering a second try for the White House.

Mr. Dodd’s panel is tasked with oversight of the country’s largest financial-services companies and government agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The committee also will examine foreign investment in the United States in the aftermath of the Dubai ports debacle and will look at strengthening the country’s rails, ports and roads systems against terrorism, Mr. Dodd said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who have not yet said officially whether they intend to run for president, do not have enough seniority to lead a Senate panel. But chances are they will have plenty to say, as each will hold posts on major committees.

Mrs. Clinton, the former first lady just elected to a second Senate term, sits on the Armed Services Committee, which also examines war policy. Mrs. Clinton’s Web site includes video links to her grilling Mr. Gates before his confirmation and her questioning of the Iraq Study Group.

Mrs. Clinton has the opportunity to square off with fellow Armed Services member Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.

The two disagree on Iraq policy, with Mr. McCain calling for more troops and Mrs. Clinton saying she cannot support such a plan unless it helps end the sectarian violence in Iraq.

Mrs. Clinton also is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, giving her an opportunity to showcase her environmental platform during what are expected to be in-depth hearings on global warming.

On that panel, Mrs. Clinton will be chairman of the Superfund and waste management subcommittee.

Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Dodd all will sit at the dais of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Mr. Obama, a former state senator first elected to the Senate in 2004, assumes a fourth committee post in the coming session. He dropped his spot on the environment panel and added the HELP panel and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which deals with terrorism matters and governmental oversight.

“I hope to address the growing health care crisis in our country and focus on legislation that will help working families adjust to the ever-changing global economy,” Mr. Obama said when announcing the post.

He is already a member of Mr. Biden’s Foreign Relations panel and of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Mr. Biden will have his hands full. Counting himself, there are four Democratic presidential hopefuls on his committee, in addition to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who is reported to be considering running for president.

Foreign Relations Committee members Mr. Dodd, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama will get the opportunity to pepper administration officials with questions on Iraq and influence war policy during hearings that are likely to receive extensive television coverage.

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