Sens. Tom Harkin and Barbara A. Mikulski are the most likely successors to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, although Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd is the senior Democrat on the committee, said three Capitol Hill experts from pension fund groups.
Mr. Harkin, D-Iowa, and Ms. Mikulski, D-Md., would be next in line after Mr. Dodd, a determining factor in leading a committee, the experts said, all agreeing on possible scenarios for a replacement.
“But Dodd would have to give up as chairman” of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to take over HELP, said Ed Ferrigno, vice president-Washington affairs at the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America. “If he stays at banking, he could oversee the re-regulation of the financial industry.”
“Dodd has been de facto chairman of the HELP committee, chairing hearings in Sen. Kennedy's absence, including the health bill,” Mr. Ferrigno said.
Mr. Harkin “has been heavily involved in labor issues” and could possibly move to chair the committee, he said. “But my thought is if you are from Iowa, you don't give up the Agriculture (Nutrition and Forestry) Committee, which he chairs. If Dodd and Harkin pass, there is no impediment for Mikulski to take the chair” of the HELP committee.
An expert from another pension fund group on Capitol Hill, who asked not to be named, speculated Ms. Mikulski might decline the leadership position, if it jeopardizes her senior standing as member of the Appropriations Committee, thus leaving Sen. Jeff Bingman, D.-N.M., as the next senior Democrat on the HELP committee.
Mr. Ferrigno believes the leadership issue will be resolved next week before Labor Day, although a Capitol Hill expert for another pension fund group, who also asked not to be named, thinks the position will not be decided until the week of Sept. 8, when the Senate returns from its summer recess.
“Given the health bill is perhaps one of the most critical in Congress, the leadership would want to fill it very quickly,” the expert said.
The HELP committee's staff likely would stay in place, said one of the unnamed experts. “The committee staff is very powerful on Capitol Hill and among the top experts in the country” on the issues of the committee.
“Whoever takes over the committee is likely to keep Sen. Kennedy's staff not only for institutional continuity, but because it is the very best staff in expertise and knowledge and networking across the hill. A lot of these folks are lawyers. They know legislation in granular detail.” the expert said.
None of the senators who could succeed Mr. Kennedy as chairman or their aides — out of respect for Mr. Kennedy's death, and earlier when he was ill — has been willing to discuss publicly their interest in filling the post, all three experts said.