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Sen. Patrick Leahy’s decision to retire opens a plum spot at the top of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and could result in unprecedented opportunities for women in the traditionally male-dominated chamber.
The Vermont Democrat’s departure at Appropriations at the end of this Congress would pave the way for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to helm the panel if she opts to give up her current gavel at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Murray would be only the second woman to head the committee, which overseas more than $1.3 trillion in annual federal spending. Former Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who left the Senate in 2017, served as both chairwoman and ranking member of the committee.
If Republicans retake the Senate in the next election, Murray would be poised to take the ranking position at the committee. She would be paired with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is expected to succeed current ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) at the top of the panel’s Republican roster. Shelby has also announced plans to retire at the end of the 117th Congress.
Murray’s office declined requests for comment. The 71-year-old lawmaker, who first came to Congress in 1993, is in her fifth term and serves in the No. 3 spot on the Senate Democratic leadership team behind Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also is a senior member of Appropriations.
The changes could occur as other women have risen on the influential panels that control federal spending. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas) hold the top slots on the House Appropriations Committee.
The decision by Leahy, 81, not to seek re-election could also have a ripple effect on Appropriations subcommittees. Leahy gave up his State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee chairmanship when he took the helm of the full panel. If Murray follows his example, she would leave an opening atop the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are next in line to helm the Labor-HHS Subcommittee and don’t have any conflicting committee leadership positions. However, Shaheen would have to give up her top spot on the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee and Merkley would have to relinquish the senior post at the Interior-Environment Subcommittee.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be poised to be the top Democrat at the HELP Committee if Murray assumes the senior Appropriations position.
A move by Sanders also would leave open his slot at the Budget Committee, where he currently serves as chairman and has a big role in developing the Democrats’ social spending package. Sanders’ office declined comment. A Sanders move would create an opportunity for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse(D-R.I.), the most senior Democrat on the Budget Committee who doesn’t currently hold the gavel of another full committee.
As the longest-serving Democrat, Leahy is president pro tempore of the chamber, a position that puts him behind the vice president and speaker of the House in the presidential line of succession. The next Democrat in line to serve as president pro tempore is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), followed by Murray. If either lawmaker succeeded Leahy in the post it would be the first time a woman served as president pro tempore of the Senate.