Listening to all of the tremors that rearranged the political geology on Capitol Hill last week, the casual observer might have imagined that the change in party control resulting from Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords' shucking his GOP identity was strictly a Democrat versus Republican event. The defection, however, has triggered a series of aftershocks within both parties, and nowhere has the disturbance been as great as among the triumphant Democrats.
The accession to majority status has forced some senior Democrats to make difficult choices. None was more wrenching than the one faced by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who confronted an embarrassment of riches: He could choose to displace Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee or exercise his seniority on the Judiciary Committee and take the chair from Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Biden's decision to pass up Judiciary for Foreign Relations was a sensible move, the importance of which extends to the broadest reaches of national politics. Biden is a man with presidential ambitions that go back at least as far as 1987. That campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came to an embarrassing end when someone in the campaign of his rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, circulated a video that juxtaposed a Biden speech with one delivered by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. In cribbing some of Kinnock's phrases, Biden also took on the Laborite's blue-collar background, an identity very much at variance with his own middle-class roots.
Yet Biden never relinquished the dream of being his party's nominee, and he became a prominent figure in some of the most highly publicized Capitol Hill clashes of recent years. He was a strong ally of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the effort to deny a Supreme Court seat to Judge Robert Bork in 1987, and he presided over the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings in 1991.
To most observers, the Judiciary Committee chairmanship would have been the more astute choice politically. But that would have meant nudging aside Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who was the senior Democrat on Judiciary when Biden earlier opted to concentrate on Foreign Relations. It is to Biden's credit that he opted for the chairmanship of Foreign Relations. While being on Judiciary and serving as the point of the Democratic lance in opposing President Bush's nominees to the federal courts would have gained him more credit with his party's influential liberals, Biden's decision may prove to be good personal politics and good party policy.
Having done battle with Hatch for more than five years, Leahy is better equipped to deal with the Senate's busiest and most contentious committee. While Biden was fighting the battles of NATO enlargement and the national missile defense, Leahy was slugging it out with Republicans who staged a kind of sit-down strike on President Clinton's judicial nominees but eagerly advanced a number of dubious constitutional amendments.
Leahy was the Democrats' point man on the nomination of former Sen. John Ashcroft to be attorney general. Inasmuch as the political prescription for presidential aspirants from the Senate is light duty in Washington, Biden's political interests are better served by chairing Foreign Relations where, remarkably, he enjoys a cordial relationship with the ranking Republican, Helms.
Leahy, no slouch as a partisan, cuts a much more conciliatory figure at Judiciary than Biden would. Genial and understated, Leahy is unlikely to bottle up all of Bush's nominations, but he will dispatch the more hard-edged conservative nominees with benign ruthlessness. This will serve the interests of the Democrats who, above all, must avoid the appearance of rigid obduracy that afflicted the Republicans after their conquest of Congress in 1994.