Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Race Begins as Democrats Look to Stand Out in Senate Crowds

December 5, 2018 Nancy Ognanovich
  • Looking for a perch to gain visibility, take battle to Trump
  • Political ambitions force Schumer to weigh committee assignments

Democratic stars such as Kamala HarrisCory Booker and Amy Klobuchar return to the Senate next year positioned to use their perches on powerful committees as launching pads for potential 2020 White House bids.

The problem is, there are only so many high-profile committee postings to go around—and those are doled out by the Senate’s seniority rules, not by who most wants to impress the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s a headache for Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who has the unenviable task of assigning names to these coveted slots.

Michael Reynolds/Pool via Bloomberg
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris at hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

The stakes are high. Individual senators, even those in the minority, can use committee positions to generate national attention and raise their profiles with potential donors and core party supporters who will be essential in a crowded primary.

Harris, Booker and Klobuchar all proved this by dominating the Democratic dais during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. The posts also provide them with a platform to go after President Donald Trump and his policies over the next two years.

“Typically that’s where members tend to make their mark,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. She said that Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees are particularly helpful for White House aspirants.

“Relatively few would have any claim to foreign policy experience if they didn’t pursue these committees,” she said.

Adding to the complication is the fact that Democrats will actually lose committee seats due to their smaller minority, the loss of two seats. Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may release reworked committee ratios this week, with Republicans set to gain committee seats while Democrats could lose slots on some panels or see them frozen on others.

Committee Jockeying

So the jockeying has begun. One potential early casualty: That shrinkage could actually cost Harris of California her job on Judiciary, as she is currently the most junior member on the panel.

Klobuchar is viewed as having the most to gain. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, she drew national attention for her polite but pointed questioning at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in September. Klobuchar, who said her father suffered from alcoholism, asked Kavanaugh if he ever blacked out after drinking, to which the nominee shot back “Have you?” After a recess, Kavanaugh apologized to the senator, noting how much he respected her.

That exchange, which was repeatedly aired on cable news, boosted talk of Klobuchar’s presidential aspirations. The Minnesota Democrat could be in line for a more visible position though the options would require careful juggling by Democratic leaders.

One possibility for Klobuchar may be ranking member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. But she needs help. That can only happen if Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) ultimately decides against taking the spot being vacated by current ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who lost his re-election bid.

Cantwell currently is next in seniority to Nelson. She’s also ranking on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has set off lobbying by environmental groups for her to remain there rather than create an opening for Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a big coal supporter, to become the panel’s top Democrat. If Cantwell stays on Energy, Klobuchar can’t move up on Commerce.

Foreign Expertise

Klobuchar may be also angling for a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee or Foreign Relations Committee, where she could question officials from the Pentagon and other agencies on Trump’s military and foreign policy, according to Senate aides. These are some of the most desirable committees, especially for Democrats seeking credibility on national-security issues. Hillary Clinton famously requested and received a spot on Armed Services for just this purpose ahead of her own run for president, as she had little foreign policy background.

Klobuchar dismissed suggestions she was looking for more high profile assignments.

“I’m fine with my committees,” she said in an interview in the Capitol. It’s “not correct” that she’s seeking a spot on Armed Services, said Klobuchar.

For Harris, losing a spot on Judiciary would rob her of her ability to weigh in publicly on matters such as Trump’s conservative judicial strategy and enforcement of immigration laws.

The Judiciary slot has been a good fit for Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. She also may be interested in elevating her role at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said he’s now in line to become ranking member after Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) election defeat. Harris could become the top Democrat on the panel’s Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee, according to industry officials who follow the panel.

Harris wouldn’t confirm the speculation. But the post could give her a greater voice on issues such as Trump’s plan to reorganize the federal government and anti-regulatory agenda. The subcommittee oversees the entire federal regulatory scheme.

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who might make another run at the Democratic nomination in 2020, said he would pass on the chance to be ranking member on Energy. Sanders is comfortable with his current job as the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, a convenient post for highlighting a bulging budget deficit and looming problems with Social Security and Medicare, according to Senate aides.

Booker (D-N.J.), has sought to boost his national profile not only on Judiciary but on the Foreign Relations Committee which deals with such timely issues as relations with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of dissident columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s dismemberment.

With assistance from Shaun Courtney and Cheryl Bolen

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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