Environment & Energy Report

How Senate Panels Will Look Next Year Despite Uncertain Majority

Nov. 6, 2020, 7:45 PM

Control of the Senate remains unclear, and Republicans and Democrats are both preparing for the possibility that the chamber’s majority will remain in flux until January. Despite the uncertainty, committee leadership and priorities for the 117th Congress are taking shape.

Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff is in striking distance of incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is just shy of the 50% vote threshold needed to claim the seat outright without a runoff. Meanwhile, incumbent Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) is already headed to a Jan. 5 rematch with challenger Raphael Warnock (D).

If Democrats emerge with victories in both contests, a doable yet unlikely outcome, and Joe Biden wins the White House, Democrats would wield a tie-breaker advantage in the Senate with Kamala Harris as vice president. Democrats are also hoping for victories in as-yet-uncalled Senate races in North Carolina and Alaska, but both are trending in Republicans’ favor and are expected to remain so.

  • Follow the latest on the Senate election results here. For a look at all the members of the 117th Congress, including the incoming freshmen, find BGOV’s lawmaker directory here.

The uncertainty of the Senate’s majority clouds the picture of several committees’ priorities, with major divides between Republican and Democratic agendas on government spending, campaign finance, energy, environmental protections, and pandemic relief. The direction of those panels will hinge on which party wields the gavels.

Bloomberg Government, Tax, and Law reporters break down where each party may steer the Senate committees, which senator would take the chair in both scenarios, where the potential for bipartisan unity is strongest, and where the prospect of agreement is likely out of reach in the Senate of the 117th Congress:

Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry: Extra pandemic relief and several reauthorization bills, including for child nutrition programs, lead the list of priorities for the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee into January. Top Republican Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) is retiring after four decades in Congress, leaving John Boozman (R-Ark.), the current head of the subcommittee on commodities and trade, next in line. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is on deck to persist as top Democrat. Stabenow and Roberts had sought to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, but it fell by the wayside. Read more from Megan U. Boyanton.

Appropriations: The Senate Appropriations Committee’s top tasks include completing work on the fiscal 2021 spending bills and trying to push through another package of coronavirus relief that faltered before the election. If they can’t accomplish that in the lame-duck session, it may slow down the start of next year’s budget and appropriations process. Top Democrat Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) weren’t up for re-election and are set to remain as lead voices on the spending process. They collaborated this year on emergency stimulus bills that moved quickly through the chamber, but were unable to strike agreement on how to handle amendments at markups on the fiscal 2021 measures. Read more from Nancy Ognanovich.

Armed Services: The Navy’s ambitious shipbuilding plans, funding of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, and stifling China’s rising global influence likely will define the Armed Services Committee’s work next year. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) will follow one blueprint—the National Defense Strategy—as he remains the lead Republican on the panel. Inhofe will have backing from the committee’s senior Democrat, Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to oversee the vast strategy and required spending, particularly shipbuilding, 5G networks, and a stronger presence in the Pacific region. Read more from Roxana Tiron.

Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs: Nominations for key financial regulatory positions are likely to dominate the Banking panel’s 2021 agenda with Biden on track to win the presidency, though how smooth that process goes will depend on who holds the gavel. The panel is likely to focus on who Biden chooses to lead agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) would become chair if Republicans hold control, making it harder for Biden’s nominees, while top Democrat Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) would move them at a brisk pace. Current Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is set to take the gavel at the Finance Committee gavel if Republicans hold control. Read more from Evan Weinberger.

Budget: Republicans’ defense of key Senate seats has likely dashed Democrats’ hopes to use the budget reconciliation process to pass major legislation, but the Budget Committee will still host significant discussions over the nation’s fiscal future. The retirement of current Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) leaves open a chair most consider unattractive. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appears to be the GOP favorite to lead because two other senior members are interested in other positions. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has served as ranking member since 2015, but has yet to say whether he would lead as chairman. Jack Fitzpatrick has more.

Commerce, Science, and Transportation: The Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will likely focus on transportation and consumer privacy issues next year. Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)—the panel’s top members who are likely to stay on next year—have both said they want to move a national privacy bill. Wicker has also said he’d like to focus on changing social media and Big Tech’s liability shield. Cantwell will use her experience as a former executive in Washington state, home to Boeing’s and Amazon’s headquarters, to advance aircraft safety and privacy bills. Read more from Rebecca Kern and Courtney Rozen.

Energy and Natural Resources: The next head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to arrive from a fossil fuel state and will seek to thread the needle on advancing energy innovation while ensuring access to affordable, reliable power. The GOP, likely led by John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), will push for an “all-of-the above” strategy on energy, with an eye on helping the sector recover from the pandemic. Current Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will step down as required by the GOP’s six-year term limit on committee leadership. Democrats led by Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) want to push for environmental stewardship, but will balance that with an economy still dependent on fossil fuels. Read more from Kellie Lunney.

Environment and Public Works: Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has led Democratic efforts to advance environmental and climate action in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will be the committee’s top Democrat in the 117th Congress. The bigger change on the committee, which also plays a key role in moving the highway bill and water infrastructure, is likely to be on the Republican side: Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who calls a multi-year highway bill “probably my top priority,” is in line to take the top GOP spot. Read more from Dean Scott and Courtney Rozen.

Finance: Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) look to be the top members of the Finance Committee for their parties. Crapo would bring a reputation as a low-key, but active policymaker from his last four years leading the Banking Committee, while Wyden has served as Democrats’ top voice on the panel for several years. As chairman, either would have a powerful position for negotiating broad health-care and tax provisions if Congress and the administration choose to move forward on a fresh round of pandemic aid, if that remains a live issue past the lame-duck session of this current Congress. Read more from Colin Wilhelm and Jacquie Lee.

Foreign Relations: Reviewing how the U.S. tackles authoritarian regimes around the world, as well as multilateral institutions and allies, will shape the agenda of the Foreign Relations Committee next year. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who easily won re-election, is set to return as the committee’s top Republican and continue his focus on redefining U.S.-China relations. He also wants to invest in global health security to prevent future pandemics and build upon U.S. alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Risch aide said. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) will likely remain top Democrat, hopes to roll back President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Read more from Naoreen Chowdhury.

Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions: The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s ambitions for the 117th Congress range from responding to the Covid pandemic, to overhauling a landmark higher education law, tackling thorny health-care legislation, and addressing a pension funding crisis. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was set to take over the top GOP spot from retiring Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), but an investigation into his stock sales prompted him to step aside as head of the intelligence panel, leaving the future of both in flux. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an experienced hand, will retain the top Democratic spot. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum, Alex Ruoff, and James Rowley.

Homeland Security and Government Affairs: The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will likely target cybersecurity and counterrorism in the 117th Congress. Stopping the flow of illegal drugs and prescription opioids into the U.S. will also be a panel priority. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is the next in line to lead Republicans, as Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is term-limited in the role. Republicans are likely to focus on foreign threats in the cybersecurity and terrorism space. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) will likely stay on as lead Democrat, and hopes to focus on the growing threat of domestic terrorism, particularly from far-right extremists and White supremacists. Read more from Shaun Courtney and Genevieve Douglas.

Indian Affairs: The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will likely see a change of leadership no matter which party controls the Senate. The panel is responsible for legislation pertaining to American Indian tribes, the Indian Health Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) likely will replace the committee’s current top Republican, John Hoeven (R-N.D.). Her priorities include health, economic development, and infrastructure. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) is seen as the next top Democrat after Tom Udall’s (D-N.M.) retirement. Allies say he is focused on the Native Hawaiian community and expect him to push for cultural preservation. Read more from Samantha Handler.

Judiciary: Big Tech can expect continued scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee next Congress regardless of which party controls the chamber, while judicial nominations under a Biden administration would be a key rift. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) could likely return as the top Republican, where he isn’t as likely to show the same enthusiasm in making Democratic judicial confirmations a priority. And Democrats will have to decide whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will continue to be the panel’s highest-ranking member of their caucus after she faced sharp criticism from progressives during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing. Read more from Madison Alder and Rebecca Kern.

Rules and Administration: The Rules and Administration Committee’s agenda is likely to be unsettled until it’s determined whether Republicans continue in the majority. The panel has had a limited legislative role in recent years, with the Republican majority generally resisting Democrat-backed changes in campaign finance and election laws. The panel has jurisdiction over federal elections, chamber rules, and day-to-day Senate operations. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is set to remain as the top Republican, while Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will likely remain as the top Democrat. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

Small Business and Administration: Extending aid to struggling businesses ravaged by the pandemic will top the agenda for the Small Business Committee, regardless of who holds the gavel, but GOP and Democratic leaders are likely to spar over additional assistance measures. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has served as the committee’s chairman since 2019, could become leader of the Intelligence Committee. James Risch (R-Idaho) has seniority but will probably stick with his current post at the Foreign Relations Committee. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are next in line. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is likely to stay on as top Democrat. Read more from Victoria Graham.

Veterans’ Affairs: The expansion of health-care options outside the Department of Veterans Affairs and the shift to a new electronic health record system are among the issues that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will likely tackle next year. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who took over as chairman in January following the retirement of Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), is poised to return as the panel’s top Republican if the GOP holds a majority. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) will likely stay on as top Democrat, either as the chairman or its ranking member, but he also could pursue an opening on the Indian Affairs Committee. Read more from Michael Smallberg.

House Committees

In the House, Democrats are reckoning with a disappointing election showing this year, but are still expected to hold onto a majority even as they lose a handful of seats to Republican challengers. The Associated Press hasn’t yet called every House race, but projections at this time show Democrats are most likely to keep control.

If Democrats keep their majority in the House, committee lineups in the chamber may not change dramatically. But three committee chairs won’t be retaining their gavels next year: Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (Minn.), who lost his race on Tuesday to a Republican, Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (N.Y.), who lost a primary fight earlier this year, and Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (N.Y.), who’s retiring.

Administration: Elections and voting rights are likely to remain as top priorities of the House Administration Committee in the next Congress, as Democrats are likely to once again push a bill to expand voting rights, protect whistleblowers, and crack down on potential conflicts of interest in the executive branch. The panel played a pivotal role in assembling that measure (H.R. 1), which the House passed by a 234-193 party-line vote in 2019. The wide-ranging bill sought to restore felons’ voting rights, create a grant program to bolster states’ election systems, and establish online and automatic voter registration. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle and Emily Wilkins.

Agriculture: The House Agriculture Committee will return in the 117th Congress to hash out additional coronavirus pandemic aid for farmers and ranchers, and could take action on the long-awaited reauthorization of child nutrition programs and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. It isn’t clear who will succeed Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who lost his re-election bid to Republican Michelle Fischbach, though Reps. David Scott (Ga.), Jim Costa (Calif.), and Marcia Fudge (Ohio) are currently the most senior Democrats on the panel. Read more from Megan U. Boyanton.

Appropriations: Big changes are under discussion by Democrats in the three-way campaign to lead the House Appropriations Committee, including a return to earmarks and an end to the decades-old ban on federal funds for abortions. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) are vying to succeed retiring Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). Before lawmakers can focus on proposals for the 117th Congress, they first must fund the federal government for the remainder of fiscal 2021; Congress faces a Dec. 11 deadline to avoid a shutdown. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

Armed Services: Strong national security, powered by innovation and competition, and paid for by a “reasonable” budget will be the overarching theme for Rep. Adam Smith’s (D-Wash.) leadership of the House Armed Services Committee next year. “When you look at where our budget is at right now—$741 billion—and then you look at the wish list, I mean gosh,” Smith said of the Defense Department’s requests, which have ranged from a 500-ship Navy to new aircraft for the Air Force. Read more from Roxana Tiron.

Budget: A recession, a federal debt nearly the size of the U.S. economy, and a Democratic caucus divided over fiscal policy will put the pressure on Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) as he preps a fiscal 2022 budget resolution in the 117th Congress. Yarmuth will attempt to shepherd a budget resolution through his committee, he said in an Oct. 15 interview. Democrats had hoped to include reconciliation instructions to pass coronavirus relief and health care bills in the Senate with a simple majority, but Republicans’ defense of key Senate seats has put that plan in doubt. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

Education and Labor: Democrats running the House Education and Labor Committee will renew efforts to make college more affordable and raise wages for workers in 2021, but the timing of those priorities will be determined by Congress’s pandemic response. Education was hit particularly hard, with campuses shut for months, while schools that did re-open for in-person instruction absorbed huge costs from testing and health protocols. Those crises will occupy much of the committee’s work even as Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) tries to sustain momentum for long-held Democratic priorities on higher education, pay fairness, and union protections. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum and James Rowley.

Energy and Commerce: House Energy and Commerce Democrats expect to return to Capitol Hill next year with an agenda similar to last session’s: advance environmental protection and clean energy, strengthen the Affordable Care Act, and safeguarding consumers’ data privacy. Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) plans to formally unveil climate legislation that aims to achieve a 100% clean economy by 2050, but some progressives say that’s not strong enough. Members also will seek to improve energy access, affordability, and reliability: key issues to the country’s recovery from the pandemic and to parts of the U.S. that continue to suffer severe natural disasters. Read more from Kellie Lunney, Alex Ruoff and Rebecca Kern.

Financial Services: Addressing the continuing housing crisis and other economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic will stay the top priority of the House Financial Services Committee next year. Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) can be expected to continue pushing legislation to extend rental and mortgage assistance to jobless tenants and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) will likely stay in place as the committee’s top Republican, though a House GOP leadership shuffle could propel him to a conference-elected post. Read more from James Rowley.

Foreign Affairs: Democrats returning to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee will likely look to reshape U.S. diplomacy and presidential war authority in the 117th Congress. Three members are vying to succeed Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who lost his primary, and the outcome is uncertain. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the next most senior Democrat on the committee and a staunch supporter of Israel, faces challenges from Reps. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) and Joaquin Castro (Texas), who have been more willing to break with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Naoreen Chowdhury has more.

Homeland Security: Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wants his Homeland Security Committee in the 117th Congress to have full oversight of the Homeland Security Department’s myriad of agencies, assuming jurisdiction from other powerful committees. Immigration also ranks high on his priorities list. “Whether it’s family separation, whether it is a multi-billion-dollar border wall, the visa program, the Muslim travel ban—all those things that have just gone against the value system of who we are as Americans,” Thompson said. Read more from Shaun Courtney.

Judiciary: Reining in big tech, changing immigration policies, and addressing police conduct will top the House Judiciary Committee’s to-do list with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) likely to remain chairman. Nadler, who’s been in the position since 2019, could help shepherd a legislative effort to rewrite U.S. antitrust laws governing how companies, such as Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, operate and compete. Democrats will likely to their continue efforts to implement a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement. Victoria Graham and Rebecca Kern have more.

Natural Resources: Climate change and environmental justice legislation will top the agenda for the House Committee on Natural Resources, which will remain under Democratic control in the 117th Congress. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) intends to keep the panel’s gavel for the next term and there are no challengers, a committee spokesman said. The committee will focus most on justice and oversight, regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, the spokesman said ahead of the election. Read more from Bobby Magill.

Oversight and Reform: Scrutinizing the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, overseeing the U.S. Postal Service, and getting an accurate Census count will continue in the 117th Congress, lawmakers on the Oversight and Reform Committee said. This will be the first full term for committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who took over after Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) died in October 2019. Leadership of the subcommittees is likely to be the same—except in the Environment Subcommittee where Harley Rouda’s (D-Calif.) race has yet to be called—as none of those representatives are retiring. Read more from Shira Stein and Louis C. LaBrecque.

Rules: House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) wants Congress to take back its Constitutional powers in the year ahead, regardless of which party holds the White House. “Democrats think Donald Trump has usurped congressional authority and Republicans think Obama did,” McGovern said. “We want to figure out a way to reassert our authority, to not cede everything to the executive branch, no matter who is in control.” His committee began holding hearings on reclaiming congressional authority in the 116th Congress, but Covid-19 put plans on hold. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Science, Space, and Technology: Leadership on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee likely will look much like it has for the last two years, with Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) holding onto the gavel. Johnson has pushed for more federal research activities to prepare for extreme weather events. She characterized the extreme heat and increasingly severe storms of the past summer as an environmental injustice issue at a Sept. 30 Environment Subcommittee hearing, adding that disadvantaged communities bore the brunt of the impacts. Read more from Dean Scott and Naoreen Chowdhury.

Small Business: House Small Business Committee members will likely have their hands full for the foreseeable future dealing with the pandemic’s unprecedented effects on local economies and businesses. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who won re-election handily and plans to maintain her role as chairwoman in the 117th Congress, will oversee those efforts. “The pandemic has created a once in a generation crisis for small business,” Velázquez told Bloomberg Government in a statement. Read more from Jacob Rund.

Transportation and Infrastructure: Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) will return to Congress with a clear goal: reauthorize surface transportation programs. DeFazio will likely use Democrats’ $500 billion highway, transit, and rail bill from this Congress—passed as part of H.R. 2—as the starting point for talks next year. His success hinges on whether he can get others to agree on how to pay for it. The Democrats’ highway bill is “ready-made for what looks to be a fairly long period with the virus,” according to Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), chairwoman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee. Courtney Rozen has more.

Veterans’ Affairs: Reducing suicides and addressing the pandemic will likely be a top priority for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the 117th Congress. But first, committee leaders are pushing for final action during the lame-duck session on some of the panel’s top agenda items. Veterans groups said they expect the committee will renew its efforts on any bills that don’t make it to the president’s desk by the end of the year. Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) will be joined next year by a new ranking Republican. Michael Smallberg has more.

Ways and Means: Pandemic relief will top the agenda for Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who is likely to keep that role in the the 117th Congress. Neal and other House Democrats will also turn their attention to how they can tweak or change the 2017 Republican tax law, such as removing its $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions. Other changes that have been discussed by Democrats include increasing the corporate income tax to 28%, from 21%, and increasing the tax on those making more than $400,000 a year. But such changes will be unlikely if the Republicans hold on to the Senate. Read more from Kaustuv Basu.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brandon Lee at blee@bgov.com; Adam Schank at aschank@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com

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