GOP in charge, Senate committees get new leaders

AP News
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Posted: Nov 07, 2014 5:33 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — One new committee chairman favors more U.S. forces in Iraq to counter the growing threat from Islamic State militants. Another has written about global warming as a hoax. A third has the 2010 financial overhaul law in his sights.

The Republicans poised to helm the major Senate committees when the GOP takes charge in January are intent on pushing back or undoing many of President Barack Obama's policies that benefited from a Democratic bulwark the last six years. The all-GOP Congress — Republicans also have a commanding majority in the House — gives the powerful Senate chairmen a newfound opportunity to steer legislation.

The chairmen of the 13 major committees and Veterans Affairs are some of the most senior members of the Senate. Three are octogenarians and four are in their late 70s. Only one new chairman will be a woman; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in line to take over the Energy panel.

Republicans hold organizational meetings next week, but the new chairmen likely won't be approved until early next year. Here's a look at the new leaders and their issues:

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AGRICULTURE

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, 78, will consider renewal of child nutrition programs that have been pushed by the White House and expire next year. Roberts has criticized efforts to make school lunches healthier, calling for studies on the costs of the program and economic impact on schools.

Roberts has been a recent dissenter on the normally bipartisan panel, voting against the five-year farm bill that Congress passed in May. Roberts supported the bill's boost in crop insurance for farmers but said other subsidies needed more reform, calling the entire bill "a look in the rear-view mirror."

Like his Republican counterparts in the House, Roberts has championed cutting back spending for food stamps, saying the farm bill's estimated cut of $8 billion over 10 years was insufficient.

Roberts held the gavel of the House Agriculture Committee 20 years ago and during his tenure he helped write the 1996 farm bill.

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APPROPRIATIONS

The gavel of the powerful panel responsible for drafting approximately one-third of the federal budget will return Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who turns 77 in December and was just re-elected to a seventh term.

Cochran was in charge during the last two years of the previous GOP majority and was a driving force behind more than $100 billion in fund to help Gulf Coast states recover from Hurricane Katrina. He was also a big practitioner of earmarks, those home-state goodies such as highway constructions, economic development grants and university research dollars.

GOP leaders have banned earmarking, but Cochran is sure to back Navy shipbuilding efforts. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, which makes a variety of Navy ships such as modern destroyers, is the state's largest private employer.

Republicans are expected to use the 12 spending bills to challenge Obama on policy issues, such as health care, financial services, immigrations and the environment.

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ARMED SERVICES

Helming the committee is the realization of a long-sought goal for 78-year-old Sen. John McCain, the Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008.

The Arizona senator, who has hinted he might seek a sixth term in 2016, stands as one of Obama's fiercest critics on national security, casting the administration as weak and ineffective in countering threats overseas. He has repeatedly called for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels and favors more U.S. forces in Iraq to battle Islamic State militants.

McCain has been critical of Pentagon contracting and increased examination of defense manufacturers and acquisition policy is certain. The Pentagon can largely forget about scrapping the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which McCain heavily favors, and can expect close scrutiny of the costly F-35 fighter jet.

"We will save the A-10," McCain said in an interview this week. Asking about Pentagon spending, the next chairman said, "I can find tens of millions of dollars of waste with you in the next five minutes if you wanted."

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BANKING, HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS

The wily Sen. Richard Shelby, 80, would make a return tour as head of the panel. High on his agenda will be changes to the financial overhaul law enacted in response to the 2008 crisis, known as Dodd-Frank. The 2010 law that brought stricter regulation of banks and Wall Street has been a burr in the side of Republican lawmakers, and the GOP-controlled House has passed numerous bills to unwind it.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the next majority leader, put it plainly at his day-after-the-election news conference: "The banking committee is certainly going to look at Dodd-Frank." The big banks, he said, "are doing just fine under Dodd-Frank. The community bankers are struggling."

Besides bank rules, the committee under the Alabama senator also may focus on curbing the authority over banks, auto lenders and credit card companies of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, which was created by the financial law.

Also likely to get committee attention is legislation to reshape the housing finance system and wind down mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Shelby succeeded as head of the panel from 2003 to 2007 in blocking bank regulation proposals.

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BUDGET

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, 67, opposed the 2011 budget and debt limit pact reached between House Speaker John Boehner and Obama as well as a modest 2013 agreement between House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., that eased the painful cuts of so-called budget sequestration.

Next year, Sessions will be called upon to craft a budget framework that would serve as a template for follow-up legislation to repeal Obama's health care law and, perhaps, tackle expensive benefit programs like Medicaid and food stamps. In his four years as the top Republican on the panel, Sessions hasn't offered an alternative GOP budget plan, but he's likely to draft a plan that reaches balance in a decade or less without raising taxes.

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COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, 53, faces a heavy workload — reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, net neutrality and transportation.

The panel will have to address the auto safety portions of the highway bill in the aftermath of General Motors faulty ignition switch recalls, now linked to 30 deaths, and the Takata air bag recalls, also linked to several deaths. Proposal to toughen federal oversight of the auto industry are likely. Some lawmakers have called for eliminating the $35 million cap on how much the government can fine automakers in such cases.

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ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES

An energy policy expert from an energy-producing state, the 57-year-old Murkowski wants to unlock as much of America's energy as safely possible.

Murkowski has argued for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, as well as Alaska's offshore, and has opposed regulations that block energy production. She believes EPA regulations to curb coal-fired power plant pollution to deal with global warming will threaten the reliability and raise the costs of electricity. She supports export of U.S. natural gas and has led the charge on pressuring the administration to lift restrictions on exports of crude oil. She has backed the immediate approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Murkowski, unlike others in the GOP, believes global warming is happening and that Alaskans are already experiencing the effects of rising water temperatures and thinning ice. At her election night party, she said "This is something we must address."

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ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS

The likely ascent of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, 79, represents one of the biggest sea changes on a Senate committee with Republicans in charge.

Inhofe, one of Congress' most vocal deniers of the scientific consensus of climate change, wrote in a 2012 book that global warming was "a hoax." He will replace Californian Barbara Boxer, who introduced climate change legislation in 2009 and was an ally of the environmental community and Obama.

Inhofe, by contrast, is a thorn in the side of the Environmental Protection Agency and has argued that more regulation will kill the economy and jobs. Inhofe has called on the EPA to abandon stricter rules on refinery air pollution and to reject their own scientists' recommendation to tighten a standard for the main ingredient in smog. Inhofe is likely to boost oversight of the agency and try to thwart their agenda at a time when Obama wants to shore up his climate legacy.

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FINANCE

The 2010 health care law is in the GOP's crosshairs, and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, 80, is likely to use his chairmanship to take the first step at chipping away at it.

Hatch has called the law's medical device tax "stupid" and is determined to roll it back. He is likely to gain some Democratic support for the effort.

Hatch would like to restore so-called trade promotion authority that would permit Obama to more easily negotiate trade deals that would pass Congress without any changes. In the short-term, the committee needs to come up with money for highway programs and to prevent an automatic cut in physician payments under Medicare.

Rewriting the nation's tax code and overhauling the system as companies push for lowering the corporate tax rate will be major issues for the committee and Hatch, but remains a long-term goal.

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FOREIGN RELATIONS

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, 62, has criticized Obama's foreign policy as tepid in dealing with Russia, Libya and Syria. Like several other Republicans on the panel, Corker also has deep reservations about the administration's negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and could push new sanctions next year that target Tehran.

Obama indicated this week that he would send Congress an authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State group. He said the goal was to update an authorization narrowly tailored to the fight against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to be more applicable to the current mission against IS extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Long before the militant threat, Corker had spoken out in favor of updating the post-9/11 authorizations, raising the possibility that he could work with the administration on the issue.

Obama's ambassadorial picks and other nominees would face a rough outing before the committee.

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HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, 74, is a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Tennessee governor and president of the University of Tennessee.

A lawyer by trade, he helped form a corporate childcare company in the private sector. Alexander said he wants to fix President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education law that's been due to be renewed since 2007 and update the Higher Education Act.

He's called the health care law a "historic mistake" and supports repealing it. He's also said modernizing the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration is a necessity, and he is seeking to examine the FDA's process for drug and device review. On workers' issues, he's sought to turn the National Labor Relations Board into what he says is more of an umpire role.

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JUDICIARY

A farmer, not an attorney, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, 81, has been on the Judiciary panel since his 1980 election to the Senate, but this will be his first stint as its chairman.

In that post, many expect him to continue his long-running interest in protecting whistleblowers who reveal details of alleged fraud by government contractors and others. He's also expected to continue oversight of programs like the Justice Department's bungled "Fast and Furious" operation, under which federal agents lost control of guns they were tracing to Mexican drug lords. Many also expect him to work on legislation easing federal regulations on businesses.

Grassley opposed last year's Senate-approved bipartisan immigration bill, arguing that it needed to do more to secure the country's borders before granting legal status to people in the U.S. illegally. He's also pressed for more information about the National Security Agency's ability to gather information on Americans, though he's cautioned that the agency must be able to protect national security.

A decade ago, Grassley spent time as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and played a role in winning approval of President George W. Bush's 2001 tax cuts and the 2003 addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare.

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HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, 59, has been a tough questioner of administration officials about the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The question will be whether the panel's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation opens another Benghazi inquiry in Congress as well as other reviews of the Democratic administration.

Under Democrat Tom Carper's leadership, the committee focused primarily on the internal workings of the sprawling Homeland Security Department, including government-low morale ratings from rank-and-file employees and contracting issues.

Johnson has at times in the past focused on those rankings and spearheaded an investigation of complaints from whistleblowers about the department's former acting inspector general. His report, co-authored with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, prompted DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to suspend the former top internal investigator.

While the committee has addressed immigration issues in the past, senators on this panel have not taken as prominent a role as their counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Though in the coming months, any administrative changes implemented by Obama are almost certain to be reviewed.

Johnson is up for re-election in 2016.

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VETERANS AFFAIRS

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who turns 70 next month, has stressed mental health needs of veterans and voted in favor a bill to provide two-year funding for veterans' benefits, so veterans would continue to receive benefits even in a government shutdown.

Aides say Isakson's priorities as chairman would include oversight of the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was approved this past summer in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsification of records to cover up delays.

Isakson strongly supports a provision in the law that makes it easier for veterans to seek VA-paid care from local doctors. Bringing competition into the VA health care system will improve services, he says. Isakson also said the new law provides an opportunity for VA to assess the quality of it leadership and management, and said under-performing executives and managers should be fired.

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Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Kimberly Hefling, Joan Lowy, Alan Fram, Marcy Gordon, Matthew Daly and Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.