The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) on August 28 has left open the chairmanship of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP Committee). The Committee has jurisdiction over legislation related to labor issues, including Employee Free Choice Act. 

The HELP chairman is responsible for moving legislation through the Committee and helping manage bills during Senate floor action. Additionally, the chairman would be the lead Senator in negotiations in the conference committee that works out differences between bills that passed the House and Senate. 

In the Senate, committee chairmanships usually are decided by seniority. With the Democrats now in the majority, the most senior Democratic senator on the Committee has the right of first refusal for the chairmanship. Normally, a senator may turn down an opportunity to chair a committee for one of two reasons. The first is that the senator already chairs another committee and, since Senate rules limit senators to chairing only one full committee at a time (they can also chair two subcommittees), the senator prefers to retain the chairmanship of his or her current committee. The second reason is that the senator is in a position of party leadership and chooses to focus on that role and allow a more junior senator to take on the chairmanship. This second reason usually relates to the top two leadership positions of Majority Leader and Whip. 

Senator Christopher Dodd (D.-Conn.) is the first in line for the open HELP Committee chairmanship. Senator Dodd is currently the chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and presently is working on major legislation for reform of the regulatory environment for banks and financial institutions. During Senator Kennedy’s absence due to his illness, however, Senator Dodd has taken the lead on drafting and guiding through committee the healthcare reform legislation passed by the HELP Committee. Senator Dodd considered Senator Kennedy his best friend in the Senate and may feel some personal commitment to Senator Kennedy and his legacy to focus on and ensure passage of healthcare legislation. Though Senator Dodd is a supporter of EFCA and friend of labor, he has been more focused on healthcare reform and regulatory oversight of the financial industry. 

Senator Dodd is facing his toughest re-election environment as he prepares to run for his sixth term in the Senate, and recent polling has him trailing against leading Republican challengers.  Senator Dodd’s decision likely will be guided by his analysis of which chairmanship will bode best for his re-election.  

Should Senator Dodd pass on the HELP Committee chairmanship, the next in line is Senator Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa). Senator Harkin’s assumption of the HELP chairmanship would have a dramatic effect on EFCA. He is the lead Senate sponsor for EFCA and is heading the negotiations to reach a "compromise" that could garner the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and result in a vote for passage in the Senate. Increased focus on EFCA would result from Senator Harkin becoming chairman of HELP. Organized labor likely would push him to act quickly. EFCA would help him quickly put his stamp on the committee as its new chairman.  

Senator Harkin is the current chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Agriculture is the number one industry in Iowa. He would have to give up that seat in order to become HELP chairman.  

Should Senators Dodd and Harkin both pass on the chairmanship, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D.-Md.) is next in line. Senator Mikulski does not currently chair a full committee, so she would not face the same choice as her two colleagues in assuming the HELP chairmanship. She likely would relish the opportunity to chair a major committee that gives her a lead role in healthcare reform. She currently chairs the HELP Committee’s subcommittee on retirement and aging and is active on Alzheimer’s issues. Senator Mikulski has a strong relationship with labor and was the lead Senate sponsor of Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that became law earlier this year. 

In light of the intense focus on healthcare reform, and the importance of the HELP Committee chairmanship, this key position is unlikely to remain vacant for long.