Senate (Finally) Organizes, Names Committee Assignments for 117th Congress

Yesterday, at long last, the U.S. Senate organized itself for the 117th Congress, one month after that Congress actually convened. A power-sharing agreement was adopted and members were finally named to committees (which are now all chaired by Democrats).

An evenly balanced Senate is an unnatural thing. The last time it happened was 20 years ago, and in that instance, the Senate leaders were able to adopt a power-sharing agreement (S. Res. 8, 107th Congress) two days after the Congress was seated. But that agreement took weeks to negotiate, and the leaders had had the advantage of knowing that the Senate would be 50-50 since the election results on November 7. In this case, no one knew for sure that the Senate would be 50-50 until after the January 5 Georgia runoff elections, so negotiations on the power-sharing agreement for the 117th Congress did not begin until almost two months after the negotiations began for the 107th Congress.

New agreement. Yesterday at about 5 p.m., Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) interrupted debate on the budget and got the unanimous consent of the Senate to adopt a new power-sharing agreement for the 117th Congress – S. Res. 27. The new resolution is an almost word-for-word repeat of S. Res. 8 from 20 years ago. The salient points of the agreement:

  • All committees will have equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats so long as the Senate remains 50-50. If the party ratio in the Senate should change mid-Congress, the majority party will get the chairmanships and an extra seat on each panel.
  • All committees will split their budgets equally in the 117th Congress.
  • In the (rare) event that a full committee chairman refers a bill, nomination or treaty to a subcommittee, and that subcommittee cannot report the item back to the full committee because of a tie vote, the full committee chairman can discharge the subcommittee and put the item on the full committee agenda.
  • During the 50-50 Senate, in the much more likely event that a full committee cannot order an item reported because of a tie vote, either party floor leader can make a motion to discharge the committee, which gets 4 hours of debate and an automatic vote in the full Senate, and if the motion is successful, the item goes on the appropriate Calendar.
  • During the 50-50 Senate, no petitions to invoke cloture and limit debate on an amendable item (like a bill or resolution) can be filed until the item has been debated for at least 12 hours.
  • The two floor leaders “shall seek to attain an equal balance of the interests of the two parties when scheduling and debating legislative and executive business generally, and in keeping with the present Senate precedents, a motion to proceed to any Legislative or Executive Calendar item shall continue to be considered the prerogative of the Majority Leader, although the Standing Rules of the Senate do not prohibit the right of the Republican Leader, or any other Senator, to move to proceed to any item.”

The only substantive difference between the new S. Res. 27 and the S. Res. 8 of 20 years ago is that the last bullet point is framed as a non-binding “Sense of the Senate” provision in the new resolution. 20 years ago, it was phrased as a binding Standing Order – but there was no way to enforce it, really, since the “equal balance” stuff was all eye-of-the-beholder. (Although the part about a motion to proceed continuing to be Majority Leader-only, per precedents, was in the Standing Order last time but is only Sense of the Senate this time, which is interesting.)

The new agreement does not prohibit Democrats from trying to abolish the legislative filibuster, as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had sought, but statements from at least two Democratic Senators that they would not do so, under any condition, seem to have satisfied him.

And the new agreement does not prevent the Majority Leader from using the “filling the amendment tree” procedure to prohibit any amendments from being offered to legislation, which has happened more and more often over the last 20 years.

Committee assignments. Each committee will have equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats for as long as the Senate has an equal number of R’s and D’s. But there was a good bit of musical chairs going on in the assignments, particularly on the Republican side. We start with the two most exclusive committees – Finance and Appropriations – that Senators usually only leave feet-first (through retirement, election loss, or death).

Finance was 15R, 13D in the last Congress and will be 14 seats each this time. No one on the Democratic side retired or lost, so the 13 Dems from last Congress are now joined by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), entering her ninth year in the Senate. On the GOP side, Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) retired, taking the number of returning R’s down to 13, so they had room for one new entry, which was John Barrasso (R-WY), effectively taking Enzi’s place.

(Was: 15 R, 13 D)
Democrats (14) Republicans (14)
1 Wyden (OR) 1 Crapo (ID)
2 Stabenow (MI) 2 Grassley (IA)
3 Cantwell (WA) Roberts (KS)
4 Menendez (NJ) Enzi (WY)
5 Carper (DE) 3 Cornyn (TX)
6 Cardin (MD) 4 Thune (SD)
7 Brown (OH) 5 Burr (NC)
8 Bennet (CO) 6 Portman (OH)
9 Casey (PA) 7 Toomey (PA)
10 Warner (VA) 8 Scott (SC)
11 Whitehouse (RI) 9 Cassidy (LA)
12 Hassan (NH) 10 Lankford (OK)
13 Cortez Masto (NV) 11 Daines (MT)
14 Warren (MA) 12 Young (IN)
13 Sasse (NE)
14 Barrasso (WY)

Appropriations had been 16R, 15D and will now be 15 per side. The only departure on the Democratic side was retiring Tom Udall (D-NM), and his seat is being taken by fellow-stater Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who has been waiting eight years to get on that committee but could not because party rules only allow one Senator per state per side of a committee. On the GOP side, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) was the only retiree, which left 15 incoming members, which meant no vacancies. But promises may have been made, so two Republicans who were on Appropriations stepped down this time: Steve Daines (R-MT) and Tom Lankford (R-OK). Both may only have stepped down temporarily. (We were stunned that Daines had been allowed on Appropriations in the first place, since he also serves on Finance, and getting on both committees at one is supposed to be impossible.) Those spots have been filled by Mike Braun (R-IN) and freshman Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who is effectively taking Alexander’s spot.

(Was: 16 R, 15 D)
Democrats (15) Republicans (15)
1 Leahy (VT) 1 Shelby (AL)
2 Murray (WA) 2 McConnell (KY)
3 Feinstein (CA) Alexander (TN)
4 Durbin (IL) 3 Collins (ME)
5 Reed (RI) 4 Murkowski (AK)
6 Tester (MT) 5 Graham (SC)
Udall (NM) 6 Blunt (MO)
7 Shaheen (NH) 7 Moran (KS)
8 Merkley (OR) 8 Hoeven (ND)
9 Coons (DE) 9 Boozman (AR)
10 Schatz (HI) 10 Capito (WV)
11 Baldwin (WI) 11 Kennedy (LA)
12 Murphy (CT) 12 Hyde-Smith (MS)
13 Manchin (WV) Daines (MT)
14 Van Hollen (MD) Lankford (OK)
15 Heinrich (NM) 13 Braun (IN)
14 Hagerty (TN)
15 Rubio (FL)

Heinrich, Braun and Barrasso had to give up some other assignments to get those newer, exclusive assignments. Barrasso gave up membership on the Environment and Public Works Committee, which controls highway funding, after chairing the panel in the last Congress, and Braun gave it up as well. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) gave up EPW because she got a new spot on Intelligence, and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) gave up EPW because he got a new spot on Foreign Relations. Cory Booker (D-NJ) gave up EPW as well, and all he got out of it was a seat on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

The EPW panel had been 11R, 10D in the last Congress and will be 10-all this time. The Democratic vacancies are filled by Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and freshmen Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Alex Padilla (D-CA). Vacancies on the Republican side are filled by Cynthia Lummis (R-WY)  (effectively taking Barrasso’s place, and apparently concentrating all of her seniority mojo on EPW, to rank 4th on the R side) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Environment and Public Works
(Was: 11 R, 10 D)
Democrats (10) Republicans (10)
1 Carper (DE) 1 Capito (WV)
2 Cardin (MD) 2 Inhofe (OK)
3 Sanders (VT) Barrasso (WY)
4 Whitehouse (RI) 3 Cramer (ND)
5 Merkley (OR) 4 Lummis (WY)
Gillibrand (NY) Braun (IN)
Booker (NJ) Rounds (SD)
6 Markey (MA) 5 Shelby (AL)
7 Duckworth (IL) 6 Boozman (AR)
Van Hollen (MD) 7 Wicker (MS)
8 Stabenow (MI) 8 Sullivan (AK)
9 Kelly (AZ) 9 Ernst (IA)
10 Padilla (CA) 10 Graham (SC)

Over at Commerce, Science and Transportation, the old ratio was 14 R’s to 12 D’s, and the new ratio is 14-all. The only Democratic departure was the retiring Udall, which left three vacancies, all claimed by freshmen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) takes Udall’s home-state seat, followed by John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA). On the GOP side, the only departure was Cory Gardner (R-CO), who lost his race (being defeated by Hickenlooper). There was a lot of seniority movement on that side, but the open seat was filled by Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) once again.

Commerce, Science & Transportation
(Was: 14 R, 12 D)
Democrats (14) Republicans (14)
1 Cantwell (WA) 1 Wicker (MS)
2 Klobuchar (MN) 2 Thune (SD)
3 Blumenthal (CT) 3 Blunt (MO)
4 Schatz (HI) 4 Cruz (TX)
5 Markey (MA) 5 Fischer (NE)
Udall (NM) 6 Moran (KS)
6 Peters (MI) 7 Sullivan (AK)
7 Baldwin (WI) Gardner (CO)
8 Duckworth (IL) 8 Blackburn (TN)
9 Tester (MT) 9 Young (IN)
10 Sinema (AZ) 10 Lee (UT)
11 Rosen (NV) 11 Johnson (WI)
12 Lujan (NM) 12 Capito (WV)
13 Hickenlooper (CO) 13 Scott (FL)
14 Warnock (GA) 14 Lummis (WY)

Then, the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee still has jurisdiction over mass transit programs. That panel was 13R, 12D last year and will be 12 per side this year. Democrats saw Brian Schatz (D-HI) depart to go to Foreign Relations and also saw Doug Jones (D-AL) lose his race. They are replaced by two Georgians; Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA). (Yes, we just said that party rules prohibit two Senators from the same party from serving on the same committee, but rules are made to be waived.)

On the GOP side, two Senators lost (David Perdue (R-GA), Martha McSally (R-AZ)), and two left for other panels (Ben Sasse (R-NE), Tom Cotton (R-AR)). That left two vacancies, which are filled by Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and who chose to spend of their seniority mojo on Banking than did three of the returning Republican members.

Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs
(Was: 13 R, 12 D)
Democrats (12) Republicans (12)
1 Brown (OH) 1 Toomey (PA)
2 Reed (RI) 2 Shelby (AL)
3 Menendez (NJ) 3 Crapo (ID)
4 Tester (MT) 4 Scott (SC)
5 Warner (VA) Sasse (NE)
6 Warren (MA) Cotton (AR)
Schatz (HI) 5 Rounds (SD)
7 Van Hollen (MD) Perdue (GA)
8 Cortez Masto (NV) 6 Tillis (NC)
Jones (AL) 7 Kennedy (LA)
9 Smith (MN) McSally (AZ)
10 Sinema (AZ) 8 Hagerty (TN)
11 Ossoff (GA) 9 Lummis (WY)
12 Warnock (GA) 10 Moran (KS)
11 Cramer (ND)
12 Daines (MT)

This means: congratulations, Cynthia Lummis! As a member of the Commerce Committee and the EPW Committee and the Banking Committee, you are the only Senator with the Transportation Trifecta, holding seats on all three authorization committees with jurisdiction over the U.S. Department of Transportation. (EPW = highways, Banking = mass transit, Commerce = everything else.) This is a privilege shared with all of the members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but since the Senate never amended its 1940s committee structure to make transportation its own thing (as the House did, partly in 1974 and completely in 1995), you are the only authorizer in the upper chamber getting the whole picture.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill