WASHINGTON -- Junior Senate Democrats have waged a behind-the-scenes campaign since the November election to try to shake up the committee-selection process and snag unusually-plum assignments, three Democratic senators told HuffPost.
The aim of the reformers was to win access to what are known as the "Super-A" committees dominated by senior members of the party. In some cases, they did: Several senior Democrats stepped down from major committees to accommodate the junior members, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) shuffled others around to open up seats.
Super-A committees are highly prized: With jurisdiction over major industries that have business before Congress, they lend ease to reelection fundraising. Senate Democrats consider the top five committees to be Appropriations, Finance, Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Commerce. (Republican rules only consider the first four to be premium panels.)
Under Democratic caucus rules, a senator is only permitted to sit on one Super-A committee so that the spoils can be spread around. Senate rules also limit the overall size of committees, but both parties routinely break both rules, offering themselves waivers. The Appropriations Committee, for instance, is limited to 28 members by Senate Rule 25, but 30 members -- nearly a third of the entire chamber -- sit on the panel.
The junior-member effort was led by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who was elected in 2002. "Part of this [effort] was to make this Senate run more efficiently and maybe get us to be on fewer committees so we could focus more on fewer committees," Pryor told HuffPost, adding that he himself is on six committees and is spread too thin.
"But another part was that we wanted to make sure that our younger, newer members had a chance to plug in and be active and be involved, and, I'd say, live up to their potential," said Pryor, who sits on both Commerce and Appropriations. "So, it was something that was a good exercise, and certainly, I think, we made some progress on all fronts."
Pryor made a closed-door presentation to the caucus, he said, laying out the fact that many members were on more than one committee and that many committees had more than the maximum number of people allowable. One difficulty, he said, is that a solution to one of those problems only exacerbates the other. Reducing the size of the panels makes it harder for newer members to gain entry.
"I think there's a commitment, at least on the Democratic side -- I can't speak for Republicans -- but on the Democratic side, that we need to dial it down and go back the other direction. And you can't do it overnight, because there are lots of reasons," Pryor said.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the most flagrant offender of the Super-A rule. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees trade issues that effect multinational corporations, he also sits on two other major panels -- Finance and Commerce. Seventeen other Democrats sit on two Super-A committees, including Mark Begich (Alaska), Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Democrats elected in 2008.
Shaheen joined Armed Services and Foreign Relations on Thursday; Udall joined Foreign Relations. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat appointed to replace Hillary Clinton and reelected in 2010, gave up her seat on Foreign Relations to take one on Armed Services. She was a leader in the fight to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) agreed to step down from Armed Services to help open up spots. Three other seats opened up on Foreign Relations with the departures of Chris Dodd (Conn.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.).
Maryland's Ben Cardin won a seat on the Finance Committee, adding that to his spot on Foreign Relations. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln's loss freed up that spot. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) is technically the Senate's number-two Democrat, but is losing a battle with Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) for the position of top deputy to Harry Reid. He gained a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and already held a key financial-services subcommittee chairmanship on the appropriations panel.
Freshman Chris Coons (Del.) won a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Joe Manchin (W.V.) picked up seats on the Armed Services Committee.
In leaving the chamber, Kaufman said that one of the most pressing problems facing the Senate's ability to operate was the sheer size of the committees. The panels are too big to function smoothly, he said, and members are on too many to become expert on any one.
Pryor agreed. "It's hard to operate efficiently when you have committees that big," he said.
Brad Shannon contributed reporting