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Kennedy, Mikulski and Senate musical chairs

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death late last night removes the leading Democratic lawmaker from the Senate--though, in reality, he had largely been absent for more than a year.

At the same time, it triggers a significant shift in the leadership of a powerful committee that Kennedy chaired--the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP)--which is helping craft the overhaul of the nation's health care system.

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Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski serves on the committee, has been active in the health care fight and, at least in theory, could fill Kennedy's seat as chairman.

For that to happen, however, the Senate's senior woman would have to leap over two colleagues with greater seniority on the panel--which would be unlikely, even if she weren't currently confined to a wheelchair with a surgically repaired ankle.

The Senate pecking order relies heavily on seniority, which provides preference in deciding matters like committee chairmanships.

Mikulski, now in her 23rd year in the chamber, wields considerable power as an Appropriations subcommittee chair. But she has never headed a major committee.

With Kennedy's death, she moves up to become the third most senior Democrat on the committee (and, for the record, 17th overall in the 100-member Senate).

Both of the Democratic senators ahead of her on HELP already chair major committees: Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, perhaps Kennedy's closest personal friend in politics, and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, another leading liberal.

Under the rules, senators cannot run more than one major committee at a time. If either Dodd or Harkin replaces Kennedy as HELP chairman, they'd have to give up their chairmanship of another panel.Dodd, who has been spearheading the committee's work on health care, is considered the most likely successor to Kennedy on HELP. Dodd told reporters that he wasn't thinking about the chairmanship today.

If Dodd takes the helm of HELP, he would have to give up his post as chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee. Next in line on Banking is Sen. Tim Johnson. But the South Dakota Democrat is still recovering from a serious brain injury. He may well defer to the next senator on that panel's Democratic seniority list, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

But if Dodd decides to stay in charge on Banking, then Harkin could choose to helm HELP. In that case, Harkin would have to surrender the top spot on Agriculture, a pivotal post for a farm-state senator. But Harkin, whose signature achievement was his Senate sponsorship of the Americans With Disabilities Act, has always had a strong interest in social legislation.

Only if Dodd and Harkin both take a pass would Mikulski get to grab the gavel of the Health committee. Well-placed Senate sources have said that such a chain of events is unlikely to occur.

The ultimate arbiter of Senate power moves is the Majority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat isn't expected to say anything on the subject, out of respect for his late colleague, right now.

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