Reed Banking Chairmanship Looking Unlikely

Senator Ted Kennedy's death has kicked off a round of speculation about committee chairmanships in Washington. Many observers expect Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd to take Kennedy's post atop the Senate health committee amid the big push for health care reform, leaving Dodd's perch as chairman of the Banking Committee vacant.

Democrat Tim Johnson, of South Dakota, is next in line for the banking job. But with Johnson three years removed from a brain hemmorhage that has slurred his speech, some of wondered if he is up for the job as Congress weighs its most significant overhaul of Wall Street regulation in years. Skipping Johnson would put Senator Jack Reed in charge, delighting liberals who fear that Johnson is too cozy with the financial industry.

But a new piece from Politico suggests the prospects for a Reed chairmanship have dimmed:

Johnson’s support among Democrats, including party leaders such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is solid, and there is no question that he will get the Banking gavel if it becomes available, Senate insiders say.

There has been speculation that party leaders could split the Banking role, formally giving Johnson the gavel but allowing Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who is behind him in seniority on the panel, to actually handle day-to-day operation of the committee. Johnson passed up the chairmanship of the less-demanding Ethics Committee chairmanship when he returned to the Senate in September 2007 following a nine-month absence after the hemorrhage.

Reed was unavailable for comment. Sources close to the Rhode Island Democrat expect that Johnson will take the Banking Committee without any “bifurcation” in the panel’s authority.

A big concern, it seems, is that skipping over Johnson would deal an unacceptable blow to the seniority system:

Given the seniority systems in place on Capitol Hill, it’s not uncommon to have a committee chairman slowed by age or illness. And there is precedent for removing chairmen when their colleagues believe that their abilities have become too limited.

Democrats removed the 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee earlier this year, replacing him with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

And in 1999, Republicans forced then-97-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to hand over the Armed Services Committee to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

In this case, though, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid is up against the Democrats’ strict adherence to the seniority system. Any effort to bypass Johnson in favor of Reed or another Democrat would anger members of the Democratic Caucus, something the majority leader wants to avoid if possible. “There is no way Reid can skip over Johnson if he wants the committee,” noted a senior Democratic aide. “Our members just wouldn’t accept it.”

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