As Democrats take control of Senate, these 10 senators will shape the agenda

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Monday that he will support a power-sharing agreement with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that will allow Democrats — who won a narrow majority of the Senate last week when Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were sworn in — to officially organize the body, which has been operating under the rules of the last Congress, when Republicans were in charge.

The deal, which had been delayed by McConnell’s demands for a pledge by Schumer not to tamper with the Senate filibuster, clears the way for Democrats to take over leadership of the committees, scheduling hearings and deciding what legislation to advance.

The Senate primarily divides its work among 20 permanent committees, such as Intelligence and Judiciary, with 13 to 19 members each. Traditionally, the “majority party member with the greatest seniority on a particular committee” serves as its chairman, per the Senate website, and the percentage of a party’s representation within the Senate determines the percentage of seats on each. However, each committee adopts its own rules and procedures, and the number of members each party is allowed to have is “subject to negotiation between party floor leaders.”

Here are 10 senators poised to take the gavels.

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Senate Budget Committee

Bernie SandersBernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Republicans had long feared this day would come: Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, taking over the powerful Senate Budget Committee. And the Vermont independent has said he is prepared to use “reconciliation,” a somewhat arcane Senate rule, to pass certain types of legislation — basically bills with an impact on the federal budget — with just a simple majority. That would constitute an end run around the filibuster, which requires a three-fifths majority, or 60 votes, for most bills and gives the minority party an effective veto on much of what the Senate does.

Sanders said he’s willing to reach out to Republicans to get bipartisan support for what he has characterized as an aggressive legislative agenda. But he’s also hinted that the outreach can go only so far.

“I don’t think our reaching out should go on indefinitely,” Sanders said on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last week. “If they choose not to come onboard to help the American people now, we have the majority. We should use that majority.”

Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Committee

Dick DurbinDick Durbin
Sen. Dick Durbin. (Drew Angerer/Pool via Reuters)

Durbin took over as the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat last month after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., its ranking remember, announced she would relinquish her post. Feinstein, who is 87, faced fierce criticism over what many fellow Democrats thought was her failure to aggressively challenge Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearings.

And while he is not yet officially the Judiciary Committee chair, Durbin — who also serves as the Democratic whip — wasted no time in flexing the party’s newfound muscle this week when he sent a letter demanding that the Justice Department “preserve and produce all relevant materials” related to its “role in Trump’s scheme to overturn the election.”

“The Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct vigorous oversight of these matters,” Durbin wrote in the letter, which was addressed to acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson. “As a first step, we seek your immediate assurance that the Department will preserve all relevant materials in its possession, custody, or control.”

Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Bob MenendezBob Menendez
Sen. Bob Menendez. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Menendez, who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015, wants to restore bipartisanship to the panel. But the committee is filled with some of former President Donald Trump’s most partisan allies in the Senate: Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who helped spread Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election; Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who promoted unfounded conspiracy theories about President Biden’s son Hunter; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Trump’s longtime confidant and informal adviser.

The New Jersey Democrat has also been tapped by Biden to lead immigration reform efforts in Congress.

Mark Warner, D-Va., Senate Intelligence Committee

Mark WarnerMark Warner
Sen. Mark Warner. (Steve Helber/File/AP)

Warner served as the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which conducted one of two congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The Virginia Democrat will now take over as chairman from the acting chair, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

And while the committee has no ongoing probe into 2020 election interference, it’s not out of the question, either.

“Folks: this is an unusual election,” Warner tweeted in November on the eve of the election. “Our intelligence community has warned that the period immediately before and after Election Day is going to be uniquely volatile, and our adversaries will seek to take advantage of that.”

Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Senate president pro tempore

Patrick LeahyPatrick Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy. (Carolyn Kaster/Pool/Getty Images)

Last week, Leahy, 80, was sworn in as the Senate’s president pro tempore — traditionally the most senior member of the majority party — for the third time in his 46 years in the Senate. The position, held in the last session by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, puts him third in line to the presidency, behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.

On Monday, the Vermont Democrat announced he would preside over Trump’s impeachment trial. (Chief Justice John Roberts presided over Trump’s first trial, but because Trump is out of office, the trial will be overseen by the president pro tempore, as stated in the Constitution.)

“When presiding over an impeachment trial, the president pro tempore takes a special oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws,” Leahy said in a statement. “It is an oath that I take extraordinarily seriously.”

Other top committee chairs

Maria CantwellMaria Cantwell
Sen. Maria Cantwell. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
  • Gary Peters, D-Mich., Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

    Peters intends to conduct a probe into the security and intelligence failures of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

  • Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee

    The former tech industry executive takes over a committee that will guide the Senate’s oversight of antitrust issues in Big Tech. Cantwell is the first woman to chair this committee.

  • Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Senate Banking Committee

    A fierce critic of Wall Street, Brown is expected to push for more affordable housing and strengthen regulations that were rolled back during the Trump administration.

  • Patty Murray, D-Wash., Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

    Murray, who emerged as a leader of the Democratic Party’s efforts to protect the Affordable Care Act, has said she wants to boost paid family leave and childcare options. She also wants to help schools return to in-person learning.

  • Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Senate Finance Committee

    Wyden has said he wants to focus on pandemic relief and rescinding the Trump administration’s tax cuts. He already helped guide Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s swift bipartisan confirmation.

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