Obama's entry shuffles the congressional seats

As White House positions are filled, a game of musical chairs has begun.

US senate 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
US senate 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As US President George W. Bush prepares to yield the seat of power behind his Oval Office desk to President-Elect Barack Obama, the impending move has already set off a round of musical chairs in Congress. While Obama has filled few White House positions so far, he will definitely be taking with him Delaware Senator and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has served until now as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Seniority dictates that Senator John Kerry would be the next in line to head the committee, a protocol that US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is likely to respect and from which Kerry, who heads a much lower-profile committee now, would be keen to benefit. A former American Israel Public Affairs Committee official said Kerry's 20-year record in the Senate has been "very strongly supportive of Israel and aware of it and in the tradition of Joe Biden." In general he expected that Kerry would do little to deviate from Biden's lead, explaining that little in Kerry's background suggested he would and that he had little to gain from such a departure, particularly considering the political risk to his support from the Jewish community. Kerry, however, could be also be plucked by Obama to join the executive branch. While the committee chairmanship is desirable, his interest in foreign affairs could take him all the way to the State Department, as he is widely understood to be interested in the post of secretary of state. Given Kerry's key endorsement of Obama and his gift to Obama in the form of the keynote address at his own presidential nominating convention in 2004 - which launched Obama from obscurity to the national stage - the incoming president might feel he needs to pay this political debt with the top diplomatic spot. That would mean the chairmanship should go to Russ Feingold, a Jewish Democratic senator from Wisconsin and the committee member with the next-greatest seniority. But that has left many Democrats uneasy, as Feingold is considered further to the Left than Obama, and some are concerned that he would have a platform for criticism policies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the administration would prefer leeway - or at least, to face fire from Republicans only. That has led to a flurry of activity in the Senate as the leadership considers how to handle the various sensitivities without appearing to slight Feingold. Barbara Boxer, another Jew, would be next in line according to seniority. But the former AIPAC staffer said he wouldn't expect Feingold to buck an extremely popular incoming president from his own party. "He's not going to go against Obama," he predicted. "It would destroy his own credibility." He viewed Feingold as likely to increase the push for peace overtures between Israel and the Palestinians, but noted that that was something in which Obama himself had expressed more interest than his predecessor. A Jewish Democratic activist described him as "caring a lot about his Jewish background." The Republican leadership of the US House of Representatives is also expected to boost its Jewish contingent - sole Jewish member Eric Cantor of Virginia. Cantor is widely anticipated to get the nod as the next House minority whip since Roy Blunt of Missouri announced his decision to step down last week following staggering Republican defeats for congressional seats. Cantor, who has served as his deputy in the current Congress, would become the second-highest Republican official in the House, and Indiana Representative Mike Pence is likely to become the third highest GOP House leader as the Republican Conference Chair. Both men are known as serious conservatives who are stalwart supporters of Israel. One Washington insider, using the term "hard-line," suggested the elevation of the two men would mean a frequent chorus of criticism should Obama make any gestures towards the Palestinians. The AIPAC official pointed out that one of the few places the Republicans could try and win over Jewish support was through a tough stand in favor of Israel and against Iran, because so few Jewish voters agreed with Republican positions on domestic issues. He suggested Cantor would use his bully pulpit to court Jews on that basis. He suggested, though, that the Republicans would not be reluctant to relinquish one key component of their Jewish outreach efforts this past year - Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 before losing his party primary in 2004 - based largely on his position in favor of the Iraq war - and going on to win as an Independent, had campaigned heavily in Jewish areas on behalf of Republican nominee John McCain during the race. "Joe Lieberman's political future is behind him," the official said. "The Republicans don't like him because he's too liberal on everything except the Iraq war and Iran, and he had a job to do in this campaign - bringing in the Jews - and he failed abysmally." Lieberman's press office did not return calls seeking comment. The Republicans, however, seem inclined to welcome Lieberman to the Republican caucus of the House if he decides to abandon his former party once and for all - the Democrats being even less pleased with him than the GOP. Since winning as an Independent, Lieberman has caucused with the Democrats, giving them the majority vote that ensures the Senate leadership and committees are headed by Democrats in the narrowly divided chamber. But his endorsement of McCain and decision to speak on his behalf at the GOP convention infuriated the Democrats. "There were people who would have accepted his endorsement of McCain but were upset with his criticism of Obama," said the Jewish Democratic operative of what many perceived as the worst blow. Still, he said, the Democrats would prefer to keep his vote in the caucus, even if their expanded majority means his is no longer a deal-breaker. More questionable, however, is whether he will be able to retain his chairmanship of the important Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee, with national security issues being the ones over which he is most at odds with his party. Lieberman has reportedly indicated that he would not take any other committee post, though others have been raised with him, while Obama has let it be known that he wants to keep Lieberman on board in some capacity. "They want his vote," the Democratic activist explained, while stressing Obama's call for bipartisanship. "And some people don't want it to be portrayed as being all about retribution."