It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Republicans in the United States Senate. After a fierce battle for control of the “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” Republicans’ newly-claimed majority could balloon to 54 votes if Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) finishes off Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in their runoff Dec. 6, which it looks like he will.
But Republicans don’t officially take control until January when the new session of Congress begins. So until then, most of the focus inside the halls of Capitol Hill is on the lame duck session, and on who will claim the spoils of victory, especially in the upper chamber.
That means new office space for many members who rise in seniority with a new incoming freshman class, and more importantly, battles over committee assignments and chairmanships.
In the U.S. Senate where seniority is paramount, Alabama’s delegation is incredibly well positioned.
Sen. Richard Shelby will be the 7th most senior member of the body when it convenes in January of 2015, and he appears to be in line to chair the Senate Banking Committee.
Sen. Jeff Sessions will be either the 18th or 19th most senior member of the body, depending on whether Landrieu ends up pulling off a long shot victory in her runoff. As the current ranking member of the Budget Committee under Democratic control, Sessions seemed to be in line to chair the Budget Committee once Republicans assume the majority.
That led to tweets like these on election night:
— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) November 5, 2014
— Rep. Martha Roby (@RepMarthaRoby) November 5, 2014
But in a surprising development that has played out over the last several days, Republican Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming now appears poised to nudge Sen. Sessions out of the way and will likely take the Budget chairmanship for himself.
As speculative stories began to spread online, Yellowhammer received dozens of emails from concerned Alabamians — and even some state and local elected officials — who could not understand how this could happen.
The most common question was, “If Sen. Sessions was the top Republican on the Budget Committee under Democratic control, why wouldn’t he be the top Republican on the Budget Committee under Republican control?”
The answer is incredibly simple and somewhat complicated, all at the same time.
The simple answer is “seniority.”
The importance of seniority in the U.S. Senate cannot be overstated. It determines almost everything, from where Senators sit inside the Senate Chamber to what committees they serve on and what chairmanships they receive.
Sen. Sessions and Sen. Enzi were both elected to the Senate in 1996. Sessions, however, is more senior than Enzi as a result of tie-breakers, like state population. However — and this is where it gets a little more complicated — when senators are elected in the same year, committee seniority is actually decided by drawing lots. And way back in 1996, the random process placed Sen. Enzi one spot ahead of Sen. Sessions when it comes to committee seniority.
Senators are extremely deferential to the seniority system, often because, well, they want it to benefit them when their time comes, too.
So even though Sessions has been the ranking member of the Budget Committee for the last several years while Enzi focused more on the Health Committee, most members of the Senate will see it as well within Enzi’s right to take the Budget chairmanship if he wants it, which he says he does.
What does it mean?
The answer to this question kind of depends on who you ask.
There was an immediate backlash in the conservative grassroots and among influential talk radio hosts, most of whom pointed the finger directly at Senate GOP Leadership, who they believe are trying to push Sessions out of the way.
Here’s what Rush Limbaugh had to say:
Republican Leadership in the Senate wants to kick Sessions off the budget committee and take the chairmanship away from him and give it to Mike Enzi of Wyoming. If that happens, that pretty much tells us everything we need to know about what’s going to happen with the Republicans in the Senate.
If the most effective, the most tireless, the most committed, the most eloquent anti-amnesty spokesman in the Senate is to be removed from his Budget Committee chairmanship — that is where the power of the purse would be used. And it would obviously be assumed that Sessions would be in favor of denying the administration the money necessary to implement this amnesty.
Mike Enzi is a nice guy, but he’s not a battler. So if the Leadership wants to get Sessions out of the way… That alone tells you what the Republican Leadership’s mind-set is on this.
Alabama conservative talk radio host Leland Whaley echoed that sentiment, as well:
Jeff Sessions is the tip of the spear in the battle to stop Obama’s illegal amnesty. The GOP senate leadership has to decide whether to run or fight. You don’t take your most principled and articulate warrior out of combat if you plan to win the war. The voters in the last election demanded the Republicans fight back. Removing Sessions from the budget chairmanship is full retreat.
But when asked about the possibility of Enzi taking the chairmanship, Sessions simply referred to Enzi as his “good friend,” and although he said he was “ready to hit the ground running” on the Budget, there wasn’t even a hint of frustration or anger in his tone when he said that he and Enzi were still “talking about it.”
And that’s probably at least in part because although Sessions would be a rockstar as the Senate Budget chairman, it is also important to remember that committee chairmanships are not everything.
The late Sen. Ted Kennedy, for instance, was often considered to be the most powerful member of the Senate, even after deciding late in his career to no longer take on committee chairmanships at all.
No matter what happens with the Budget Committee chairmanship, Sessions will likely be the senior Republican on Armed Services, Judiciary and Environment and Public Works, in addition to the Budget. That’s a whole slate of committee assignments that could spark envy among even the most senior lawmakers.
So what’s going to happen?
Each committee privately elects its chairman in January, so this is still a fluid situation. But as of right now, it looks like Enzi will, indeed, end up chairing the Budget Committee.
That’s unfortunate for Alabama, because having Sessions atop that powerful of a committee would have been a big deal for the state. And even more importantly, having the “Conservative Conscience of the Senate” leading the charge when it comes to addressing the nation’s $18 trillion debt would have been a great thing for the country.
But with Sessions’ seniority, he will undoubtedly be a major player in his other plum committee assignments. And with the blowback continuing to build, Republican leadership is probably savvy enough to see that even if Enzi gets the Budget, conservatives all over the country are going to demand Sessions’ role be increased inside the caucus in a big way.
Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims