Health Post For Mikulski?

Md. Senator Could Follow Kennedy

August 28, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski described Edward M. Kennedy as her "Sir Galahad," a friend and mentor who took her under his wing when she joined the Senate.

Now, in what would be a unique parting gift, there is a chance that Kennedy's death could elevate Mikulski to the chairmanship of a major committee for the first time in her 23-year Senate career. For her to inherit his job, though, Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate would have to turn it down first.

The odds of that happening are difficult to gauge. They depend on a complex blend of seemingly unrelated factors, including President Barack Obama's legislative priorities, arcane Senate rules and the political calculations of one of the most endangered Democratic senators in the country.

That man is veteran Sen. Christopher J. Dodd. The Connecticut senator hasn't tipped his hand, but if he decides that shoring up his shaky re-election prospects is his top priority, Mikulski would remain the most senior Democrat without a major committee chairmanship.

Dodd told reporters Wednesday that he had not given "a second's worth of thought" to whether he would take over for Kennedy as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The same day, Dodd spoke by phone with Mikulski, according to a Mikulski aide.

They shared their grief over Kennedy's death, but "did not discuss committee assignments," said spokeswoman Rachel MacKnight. Mikulski, 74, remains a patient at a Mercy Medical Center rehabilitation unit after ankle surgery last month.

Dodd, 65, was Kennedy's best friend in the Senate for decades. After Kennedy was diagnosed with brain cancer, Dodd stood in for him over the past year in drafting part of the sweeping health care overhaul measure that is making its way through Congress.

Until his death, Kennedy chaired the HELP committee, which deals with a wide range of social legislation. At Kennedy's behest, Mikulski helped steer a higher education measure through the Senate and oversaw elements of the health care legislation over the past year.

But Dodd outranks Mikulski and all other Democrats on the panel in seniority. Ordinarily, that would settle things, but a senator can chair only one major committee at a time. And Dodd now heads the banking committee, having succeeded Paul S. Sarbanes in that job after the Maryland senator's retirement in 2006.

For Dodd to replace Kennedy at HELP, he would have to surrender the banking chairmanship. In that role, he is deeply involved in a push to craft the most sweeping new regulation of the financial system since the Depression in an effort to prevent a repeat of the crash of 2008.

A Senate leadership source said Thursday that Dodd has not indicated whether he would stay as head of banking or move to the top spot on the health committee. The second-ranking Democrat on the health panel, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, has signaled his desire to remain as chairman of the agriculture committee.

If Dodd and Harkin turn down the health chairmanship, it would go to Mikulski, who ranks third in seniority among committee Democrats. She was first elected in 1986 and is a strong favorite for re-election in 2010.

But Dodd, who recently underwent prostate cancer surgery, is in the re-election fight of his career. Polls show him trailing likely 2010 Republican challengers after a wave of negative publicity, some of it tied to his work on the banking committee.

This month, Dodd was cleared by the Senate ethics committee of allegations that he had violated gift rules by accepting a home mortgage discount from Countrywide Financial. But the panel scolded him for not exercising "more vigilance," in his dealings with Countrywide, "to avoid the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment."

Earlier in the year, Dodd took a political hit after he inserted a provision into the economic stimulus package that allowed financially troubled American International Group, which received billions of dollars in federal bailout money, to pay bonuses to its executives.

Shifting the focus away from his banking committee role could help Dodd politically. It could also link him more closely to the top legislative priority of Obama, who has offered campaign help to the senator.

Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll in Hamden, Conn., said, "It would be a plus for Dodd to be perceived as inheriting the Kennedy legacy on health care and to be associated with the No. 1 issue in the country right now." He added that the administration's health care overhaul remains popular in Connecticut, a Democratic state that Obama carried in a landslide last year.

But Dodd's relinquishing of the gavel at the banking committee could jeopardize the push to re-regulate the U.S. financial system. Next in line for that job is Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, regarded as far more sympathetic to the financial services industry than other Democrats.

"I think Dodd is really torn between his substantive interests and his electoral self-interest," said David W. Rohde, a Duke University political scientist. "He'd rather stay at banking," but taking over HELP could distance him from his political problems and "tout his ability to manage things that could be attractive to his Connecticut constituents."

Kennedy farewell

A private Mass for the senator will be held at noon today. Pg 14

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