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Sen. Kennedy presides over confirmation hearing for HHS Secretary Sebelius in March.
Sen. Kennedy presides over confirmation hearing for HHS Secretary Sebelius in March. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
With the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, there's the obvious question of who will fill what was known for six decades in Massachusetts as the "Kennedy seat."
But when it comes to health policy, the more pressing question may be who takes over for him as chair of one of the pivotal panels in the Senate — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee?
That's the platform Kennedy used to launch bills to prevent and treat AIDS and HIV; to boost education funding, and to protect the rights of those with disabilities, among dozens and dozens of others.
This year, the new HELP chairman will have to work with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to help craft and push through the Senate Kennedy's biggest unmet goal — a health overhaul guaranteeing coverage for all Americans. Yet it's not at all clear who will try to fill Kennedy's shoes.
Next in line for the chairmanship is Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Dodd has been acting as chairman during Kennedy's illness and steered a health overhaul bill through the committee in July. But Dodd also chairs the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Senate rules only allow senators to chair one committee. Dodd is considered unlikely to give up Banking for the HELP panel.
Likewise, the next Democratic senator after Dodd in line for the HELP gavel, Tom Harkin of Iowa, already chairs the Agriculture Committee, which is considered far more important to his home state.
That could leave the chairmanship to fourth-term Marylander Barbara Mikulski, a former social worker from Baltimore. Mikulski is four-feet-11-inches of sharp elbows and quick comebacks. She is as liberal as Kennedy, and has a reputation as a hard worker on legislation. But she also has a reputation for rapid staff turnover and lacks the deal-making finesse of Kennedy, who patiently and collegially pursued his health agenda over decades.
Of course none of this is a done deal. Dodd is facing a difficult reelection effort amid investigations of his personal finances, and could in fact opt to switch committees. So could Harkin. One of the most predictible things about the Senate is its unpredictability.