SPECIAL UPDATE: New Senate Majority Takes Shape

(Posted 6-12-01)

This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies.

IN A NUTSHELL: With the departure of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party, Democrats have assumed the chairmanships of  Senate committees. The power shift will have a marked impact on the Senate agenda but is not likely to have as big an impact on the ultimate compromises reached between Congress and the Administration on major issues such as energy policy and appropriations. This special update provides a description of the new committee chairmen and some of the changes that are likely to result from the new Senate majority.


When American voters went to the polls in November, they returned a 50-50 split in the Senate. For about a week in January -- after the new senators were sworn in and before the inauguration of President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- Democrats controlled the Senate with Al Gore serving in the constitutional role as tiebreaker. When Cheney assumed that role on January 20th, control switched to the Republicans who had controlled the chamber since 1995. In recognition of the even split, however, a power-sharing agreement was reached. Although Republicans held the chairmanships of all Senate committees, either the chairman or the ranking Democrat could discharge a bill from committee on a tie vote. Committee staff was evenly divided rather than the usual allotment of two-thirds to majority and one-third to minority.

All that changed on May 24th when Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont announced that he was leaving the Republican Party due to growing differences with the conservative leadership. Always a maverick, Jeffords was broadly popular with both Republicans and Democrats in Vermont, having won in November by a landslide. Although he became an independent, Jeffords announced that he would support the Democrats on organizational matters, making them the majority party. That transition took place on June 6th with Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) being recognized on the Senate floor as Majority Leader. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who is widely credited with facilitating Jeffords' move, is the new Majority Whip.

The shift in power  will have significant consequences for the Senate's agenda, but it is less clear whether it will have a major impact on outcomes. Although the Republicans no longer enjoy control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, the Democrats now cling to a razor-thin majority nowhere close to the 60-vote majority necessary to overcome minority filibusters. Had a switch taken place in the House, the impact would have been much greater since that body operates much more on strict majority rule. In the Senate, cross-party compromises will remain the order of the day for most controversial issues.

Although final decisions have yet to be reached on many logistical issues -- including the number of Democratic and Republican committee slots -- it appears that staff disruption will be minimal. In several cases, Republican committee staffers have switched over to remain in the majority.

Appropriations Committee
The committee that holds the federal government's purse strings is usually one of the least partisan, its members being more concerned with home-state beneficence rather than party priorities. The new chairman is Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), returning to a position he held before 1995. As the Senate's most senior Democrat, Byrd also assumes the largely ceremonial title of President Pro Tempore of the Senate, previously held by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC). Byrd is known as a master of Senate procedures and a devoted provider of federal dollars to West Virginia. He has publicly complained that the president's budget request and congressional budget resolution do not provide adequate funding to pay for important programs, cautioning his colleagues that they have not left room for the many earmark requests they inevitably will make of him. Byrd has pledged to keep to the committee timeline outlined by former chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) -- now ranking minority member and still very powerful -- for passing fiscal year 2002 appropriations bills, although some slippage is likely.

Byrd also chairs the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees the U.S. Geological Survey, land management agencies, Department of Energy's fossil energy programs, and the Smithsonian Institution. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) becomes ranking member. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) now chairs the VA, HUD & Independent Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Both Mikulski and former chair Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) have been pressing their colleagues to support doubling of NSF's budget in the next five years. Mikulski has also been a strong supporter of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, because much of the work is done at the Goddard Space Flight Center in her state.

Majority Whip Reid replaces Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) as chair of the Energy and Water Subcommittee with responsibility for the bulk of DOE and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The biggest change is likely to be in the area of nuclear energy. Where Domenici was a strong advocate for nuclear, Reid is an implacable opponent of DOE's high-level nuclear waste disposal program, which is seeking to site a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The president's budget request included a large increase for the repository program, assuming a positive recommendation by the Secretary of Energy to approve the site and begin the licensing process. Although Reid has denied that he would use his new status to stop the repository, Daschle has said that the repository is "dead," a view echoed disconsolately by former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Frank Murkowski (R-AK), one of the repository's strongest supporters. Committee web site: http://www.senate.gov/~appropriations/

Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-SC) takes over from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). A conservative Democrat, Hollings is not likely to take the committee down a sharply different path from his predecessor. One area that may see less attention, however, is climate change, which was of particular interest to McCain who had pledged to investigate the issue after hearing many questions raised by voters during his presidential campaign. Hollings also assumes the chairmanship of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the Commerce Department and thus will control both the authorizing and appropriating process for NOAA. Responsibility for many science agencies resides in the Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology & Space. Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) is the new chair, replacing freshman Sen. George Allen (R-VA). Breaux, one of the premier dealmakers in the Senate, is also a co-chair of the Congressional Oil and Gas Forum.
Committee web site: http://www.senate.gov/~commerce/

Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) replaces Murkowski as chairman of the committee that has become ground zero for congressional action on energy policy. Both senators introduced comprehensive energy legislation this spring, and Bingaman has indicated that he will seek to move his bill (S. 597) through the committee in smaller pieces rather than Murkowski's planned single-package, fast-track approach for his bill (S. 389). Overall, the bills share many provisions with one another and with the president's energy plan formulated by Cheney (see http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis107/energy_update0501.html). Bingaman's bill includes a number of supply-enhancing provisions found in Murkowski's bill but has a greater focus on reducing demand.According to Bingaman: "We need to develop a balanced response that takes advantage of all the options that are available to us. We can't supply our way out of this unfortunate circumstance. We can't just conserve our way out of it either. We must do both." The new chairman does not support exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, further shrinking the chances for that centerpiece of the Bush plan. Bingaman has also argued that energy policy must be addressed in the context of climate change policy. With Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the committee, Bingaman can be expected to take a more aggressive approach to legislation addressing the California power crisis, although he does not support federally mandated price caps. Committee web site: http://energy.senate.gov/

Environment and Public Works Committee
At the moment, Reid chairs this committee, having served as the ranking member for the past five months. But it is expected that Reid will hand the chairmanship to Jim Jeffords who had to give up his own chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee when he switched parties (and new HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy, D-MA, was not about to relinquish his seniority). Jeffords has often clashed with his former party on environmental matters, and he is expected to pursue a fairly green agenda as chairman. In March, Jeffords introduced climate-related legislation (S. 556) to reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions from powerplants. The president's energy plan proposes increased regulation of the latter three but not CO2. Jeffords is also expected to take up legislation introduced by Reid and former committee chairman Bob Smith (R-NH) to phase out methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in gasoline.
Committee web site: http://www.senate.gov/~epw/

Other Committees
A range of other committees address issues important to the geosciences. For example, tax provisions associated with comprehensive energy legislation will go through the Finance Committee, where the chairmanship switched from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) to Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), whose views in support of international treaties are sharply at odds with those of former chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC). For example, Biden supports the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which includes a major seismic verification component of interest to geoscientists. Given the lack of a filibuster-proof majority, it is unlikely that Helms's opposition will be overcome any time soon. As noted above, Kennedy will oversee the HELP Committee, which is responsible for science education. Kennedy is expected to oppose the administration's push for increased block granting of federal school aid.
Committee web sites: http://www.senate.gov/committees/index.cfm

Special update prepared by David Applegate and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Program

Sources: E&E Daily, The Hill, Roll Call, Senate web sites, Washington Post.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted May 19, 2001

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