Politics

K Street Turns Its Lonely Eyes to Grassley

Republican holds the key to cascading possibilities, from Judiciary to Finance to Banking

Will Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, make the leap to head the Finance Committee next year? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Fresh off a divisive Supreme Court battle, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley has a complicated decision to make next month that has the business world watching with keen interest: whether to make the jump over to the Finance Committee chairmanship in the 116th Congress.

“Ask me Nov. 7,” was all the Iowa Republican would say earlier this week on the topic. But the allure of returning to the helm of perhaps the most powerful committee in Congress, with jurisdiction over taxes, trade and health care policy, can’t be lost on Grassley, who was Finance chairman for part of 2001 and again from 2003 through 2006.

Under Senate GOP rules, Grassley could go back for another two years; but in that scenario he’d have to give up the reins at Judiciary, which could yet see substantial action over the next two years — particularly if another Supreme Court slot opens up.

The leadership of Finance and other key committees has remained as cloudy as it was last January when the current Finance chairman, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, announced his retirement.

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Grassley’s decision is the linchpin to cascading possibilities: a move to Finance would likely lead to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina becoming Judiciary chairman. But if Grassley stays put, it would pave the way for the next most senior Republican on Finance, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, to take the gavel. That would likely lead to Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania ascending to the chairmanship of Senate Banking, which Crapo now leads.

Crapo and Toomey deferred to Grassley, who will turn 86 next week, on where they might end up come January. “I’m not going to speculate about it until we see what the outcome of the election is what Sen. Grassley’s choices are,” Crapo said. Added Toomey: “It’s not in my hands.”

The uncertainty over the influential panel’s leadership has industry groups from the health care sector to financial services on edge, observers say.

“I suspect many people are watching closely, especially given the influence this committee will have on tax reform 2.0,” Norbert Michel, a senior fellow in the study of financial services at Heritage Foundation, wrote in an email. Michel watches Senate Banking closely and is a fan of Toomey becoming chairman of that committee where “he would be a great one from conservatives’ viewpoint.”

Another SCOTUS battle?

Weighing into the decision process could be the outlook for major activity in these respective committees. Judiciary moved two Supreme Court nominees this Congress and was key to a record number of federal appeals court judges being confirmed in 2017. It also could continue to be a focus if another Supreme Court nomination happens or if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s emphasis on moving judicial nominations continues.

Meanwhile, last year Senate Finance helped write the biggest tax code overhaul in more than 30 years. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to fix things in the law and take on other topics, such as retirement savings.

“I would imagine a member takes several things into consideration when determining which committee they want to move to — what has happened last Congress, what’s sort of on the docket for the next Congress,” said James Ballentine, executive vice president of congressional affairs at the American Bankers Association.

If Republicans lose control of the Senate, then the speculation over whether Grassley or Crapo will lead Finance is moot. Though it would take only a gain of two seats for Democrats to take control, Republicans are defending fewer seats this election and more Democrats than Republicans are in toss-up races.

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If Republicans retain control of both chambers, the Finance panel might be the more attractive choice, offering a greater opportunity to shape major tax, health and trade policies with a cooperative House Ways and Means chairman. Even if Democrats re-take control of the House, which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales forecasts is the most likely outcome, prospective Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal of Massachusett, is viewed positively by the business community and regarded as someone Republicans can work with.

Still, Grassley’s decision won’t be dominated by what happens on the other side of the Capitol on Nov. 6.

“I don’t know if Grassley would necessarily say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be Neal if the Democrats take over, he and I can work well together,’” Ballentine said, arguing the bigger consideration would be, “I’m in the Senate, this is what I want to accomplish.”

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