Grassley’s Chairmanship Choice Has Knock-On Effects for Senate Panels

Sen. Chuck Grassley is set to announce soon whether he wants to take over the Finance Committee, touching off a shuffle for other Senate committee gavels.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
Casey Wooten
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Casey Wooten
Nov. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Sen. Chuck Grassley has an envious problem. Does the seven-term senator want to continue heading up the Republican effort to install conservatives in the judiciary, or does he want to lead GOP tax policy for the next two years?

And as senators return to Washington next week, Grassley's decision whether to lead the Senate Finance Committee will have an outsize influence on the landscape for other panel chairs.

“There was some thought prior to the Kavanaugh hearings that it was going to be [Sen. Mike] Crapo, but the feeling now is that Grassley wants it—he kind of earned it—and that Lindsey Graham wants to do Judiciary,” said a Republican consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection, and with the midterms over and Republicans retaining their Senate majority, lawmakers are starting to consider who will lead committees next year in the upper chamber.

Michael Zona, a spokesman for Grassley, said in an email that the Iowa Republican will “consult with his colleagues when the Senate returns next week and will then announce his decision.” Senate Republicans are set to hold elections for leadership positions Wednesday, though selection of committee positions will come later.

Hatch’s departure could set off a cascading change-up among Senate committee chairs. Senators largely use seniority when choosing committee chairs, which means the Finance gavel would go to Grassley, who already helms a major committee: Judiciary.

Senate Republican Conference rules lay out a six-year, cumulative term limit for committee chairs, which means Grassley, who helmed the Finance Committee in 2001 and from 2003 to 2006, could still lead the panel for two more years.

Grassley—the first nonlawyer to helm the Judiciary Committee—has largely kept quiet about his plans for next year, though in an August conference call with Iowa reporters he didn’t rule out making the switch to leading Senate Finance, The Des Moines Register reported at the time.

If Grassley stays on Judiciary, then seniority would give the Finance Committee gavel to Crapo—though if he took the job he would need to vacate his chairmanship of the Banking Committee, likely making way for Sen. Pat Toomey to take that spot.

If Grassley does leave his chairmanship on Judiciary, next in line would be Graham.

It’s an appealing position for either Graham or Grassley. There are still numerous federal court seats—and potentially a Supreme Court seat—to fill over the next two years in the Judiciary Committee.

And the Judiciary chair will have another big task next year: holding hearings for the new attorney general nominee after President Trump fired Jeff Sessions Wednesday. Senate Republican leadership has been skeptical about confirming an attorney general in the upcoming lame-duck session.

Graham told CNN in 2017 that if Trump fires Sessions “there would be holy hell to pay.” But Graham has grown closer to the president in recent months, fervently defending Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s then-embattled pick to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, and laying down a threat to Democrats over future nominations during Judiciary hearings in September.

“I’m going to remember this,” Graham told Judiciary Democrats during the hearing. “There is the process before Kavanaugh, and the process after Kavanaugh.”

Graham tweeted Wednesday that he looked forward to working with Trump to find a “confirmable, worthy successor” to Sessions and put to rest speculation that he was angling for the attorney general spot.

Moving to lead the tax-writing committee could give Grassley more power to influence the next round of temporary tax breaks, collectively known as tax extenders, that Congress is likely to work on next year. Most extenders need to be renewed annually, and among the tax breaks are provisions important to Iowa, including tax credits for biodiesel and ethanol fuels.

One of the Finance Committee’s other responsibilities is trade, and Grassley—a corn and soybean farmer in northeast Iowa’s Butler County—could hold more sway with the Trump administration over its tariff policy and its impact on agriculture. China, a major buyer of soybeans used in animal feed, has sharply cut U.S. imports since the administration imposed broad tariffs on Chinese goods. Soybean prices have dropped since the tariffs started to bite over the summer.

Still, Republican insiders say that Grassley would spend much of his time on Finance blocking Democratic tax legislation coming out of the House, where Rep. Richard Neal is expected to take the gavel of the Ways and Means Committee next year.

There may be some small-ball tax items Congress could move on a bipartisan basis, but it’s unlikely there’s major tax legislation coming down the pipe with a divided Congress. Compared to the high-profile work on Judiciary, shepherding through small tax breaks or an overhaul of the Internal Revenue Service’s administrative structure may not appear as attractive.

“Candidly, I don’t understand what Grassley’s thinking is here,” said a former senior Republican tax staffer, “because if he goes to Finance for two years, it’s going to be largely playing defense against stuff the House is sending over to undo [last year’s tax overhaul] or look at Trump’s tax returns—whatever it may be—whereas on Judiciary, he could spend two years confirming additional judges and even potentially a Supreme Court nominee or two depending on how that plays out.”

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