New committee assignments for potential Senate candidates

WASHINGTON–In the coming weeks, Rep. Joe Courtney will be beefing up on commodity price issues, while Rep. Chris Murphy will start cramming on American foreign policy.

That’s because those two members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation are slated for new committee assignments for the 112th Congress.

The implications are significant for their districts and the state, not to mention their respective political ambitions. With the House now in Republican hands and Democrats left with fewer slots to dole out, some changes were inevitable.

For example, in the last Congress, Murphy, D-5th District, had a coveted seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has broad purview over health care, energy, and other nationally significant issues. He lost that slot when the GOP took the reins of the House last week.

But Democratic leaders instead made room for Murphy on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a post that could add a key line to his resume if he decides to run for the Senate in 2012.

Murphy will also move up the ladder on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, which is expected to be in the spotlight this year as Republicans open investigations of the Obama Administration.

“It’s a committee that we think is going to be very vital in terms of oversight and investigations,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District and the House Democratic Caucus chairman. “If he chooses to run for the Senate, it certainly will give him a [higher] profile,” he said, adding that he’ll be able to dig into government waste and fraud issues as well.

The new chairman of the oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has vowed to launch a broad array of inquiries, covering everything from the foreclosure crisis to corruption in Afghanistan. If nothing else, Murphy could end up in the media limelight more, as a Democratic counterweight to Issa on that panel.

Asked about Murphy’s move to the foreign affairs panel, Larson said that, too, could “absolutely” burnish the 5th District congressman’s Senate bona fides.

As for Courtney, who is also considering a 2012 Senate bid, he will move up in seniority on the House Armed Services Committee, a key post for his district, which includes the New London Naval Submarine Base and the Electric Boat facility in Groton. Many other Democrats on that panel, including the former chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Miss., lost their re-election bids, giving Courtney more clout, albeit in the minority.

At the same time, though, Courtney got squeezed off the House Education and Labor Committee, which now has 30 Democrats and was trimmed back to about 15. Courtney has used that panel to go to bat for the University of Connecticut and to insert his voice into the debate over reforming No Child Left Behind, among other things.

Courtney expressed disappointment with losing that committee seat, particularly as education reform could move center stage in this Congress.

He will instead get a slot on the House Agriculture Committee. That’s not likely to get him nearly as much media attention as Murphy’s oversight slot. But Courtney said he would be eager nonetheless to dig into farm issues, noting that there are about 4,000 farms in the 2nd district.

Courtney said he was “pretty excited” about the switch.

He noted that the federal farm bill will be up for reauthorization this year, giving Congress an opportunity to reshape a broad set of agriculture and food policies.

“That’s a huge effort,” Courtney said. “There’s clearly a need to reform the milk pricing system,” pointing to the dairy market crash in 2009.

“It was scary and the system we had in place was not adequate to deal with that,” he said.

Other members of Connecticut’s House delegation are set to keep their current slots. Last week, Larson won a fresh term on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. And Democrats also set the roster of the House Appropriations Committee, where Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, will move up in seniority. DeLauro may win a new perch as the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for health and labor programs, a huge pot of federal funding.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, will also keep his seat on the Financial Services Committee. Himes said in a statement that he hopes to work on reforming the government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

A spokeswoman for DeLauro, co-chair of the panel that doles out committee slots, cautioned that a few committee assignments are still in flux. Some seats on Veterans’ Affairs, for example, remain unfilled.

Larson said that no matter how things shake out, the delegation will be in a position to wield considerable clout.

“Courtney is on the key committee that we need to have him on-Armed Services. And Himes is on the key committee that he needs to be on” for his district, Larson said. With his own post on the tax writing panel and DeLauro’s seat on the spending committee, Larson added, “all and all I think Connecticut is still in excellent shape.”