WASHINGTON – It’s not king for a day. But how does chairman for the next week sound?
Not too bad to Maryland’s senior senator, Paul Sarbanes.
The Baltimore Democrat is chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee until Saturday, when Richard Cheney will be sworn in to replace Vice President Al Gore. That will end the Democrats’ short rein as the majority party in the Senate, giving Cheney and Republicans the tie-breaking vote in the evenly divided chamber.
Until then, Sarbanes and his staff are enjoyingg some low-key basking in
the Banking Committee chairmanship light – even though Congress is not in session and there is only one hearing scheduled before Sarbanes has to give up the chair.
The hearing Wednesday – the only one Sarbanes is likely to chair – will consider the nomination of Mel Martinez to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It’s not expected to be a memorable hearing: Martinez, a public housing official from Florida, is expected to draw bipartisan support. Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, are scheduled to introduce Martinez at the hearing.
Sarbanes met last week with Martinez. He’s also met several of President- elect George W. Bush’s other Cabinet nominees, including Secretary of State- designate Colin Powell.
“It’s been a fairly busy time in terms of getting to know one another, who the players will be in the new administration,” said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sarbanes.
Until the new administration arrives, Sarbanes and his staff are reveling in the chairmanship.
Visitors who step inside the glass doors of Sarbanes’ Senate office are likely to be told that they are in the Banking chairman’s suite, and Internet announcements of the Martinez hearing list Sarbanes at the top as committee chairman.
This is not Sarbanes’ first committee chairmanship on Capitol Hill. He was chairman of the Joint Economic Committee in 1987 and 1988 and again in 1991 and 1992.
As the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, Sarbanes was in line to become chairman in 1994 when he easily won re-election. But his plans were dashed when Democrats lost control of the Senate that year. Jacobs said Sarbanes tempered his disappointment in 1994 with a bit of humor, saying a funny thing happened on his way to the chairmanship.
Sarbanes remains the ranking Democrat on the committee, but the Senate remains in Republican hands – except for the current two-week window.
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans will have equal membership on all committees under a power-sharing agreement. Yet to be determined is what role the ranking Democrats on Senate committees will play in setting agendas.
When Cheney takes office, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, will resume his role as chairman of the Banking Committee. Gramm’s staff will again take the lead on scheduling hearings and witness testimony and negotiating Gramm’s position on legislation, said Christi Harlan, his spokeswoman.
Still, Sarbanes expects to be a player in the negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.
“We’re not going to sit back and watch. We are going to be active participants,” Jacobs said.