Most people don’t know it, or they don’t really think about it, but in the United States Senate there are different kinds of senators. This is also true in the House of Representatives. We can break the 100 senators into distinct groups (although some don’t fit neatly into any single group).

One obvious group is involved in matters of national security and/or foreign affairs. For example, Sen. Webb sits on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Veteran’s Affairs committees. Sen. McCaskill sits on Homeland Security and Armed Services. Sen. Warner sits on Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Intelligence.

Another group is primarily involved in economic matters. For example, John Kerry chairs the Small Business committee and sits on Finance and Commerce. Chuck Schumer chairs the Joint Economic committee and sits on Banking and Finance. Sen. Sununu sits on the Joint Economic, Banking, and Commerce Committees.

Another group is primarily involved in domestic and social issues. They tend to gravitate to the Agriculture, Environment, and Health Education Labor & Pensions (HELP) committees. For example, Amy Klobuchar sits on Agriculture and Environment, Sherrod Brown sits on Agriculture and HELP, and Bernie Sanders sits on Environment and HELP.

Another group is primarily involved in the budget and appropriations process (and often the rules for the Senate, as well). For example, Sen. Byrd is the chairman of Appropriations and sits on the Budget and Rules committees. Sen. Inouye chairs Commerce and sits on Appropriations and Rules. Sen. Ted Stevens has the same assignments for the Republicans.

Another, smaller group is known for the nitty-gritty of policy making and bill writing. For the Democrats, this group is dominated by Sens. Tom Carper and Jeff Bingaman. For the Republicans, Sens. Domenici and Enzi. Senators in this group tend to gravitate to the Energy and Commerce committees, where some of our most complex issues are worked out. But each committee has someone that gets into the policy more than their colleagues.

This pretty much covers the main groups of senators, but there are two more worth noting (in addition to those who focus mainly on the judiciary). The first is a group that can be called the ‘communications wing’. These are senators that may not concern themselves primarily with policy but do a lot of media. Often, they are not closely aligned with their party leadership. Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain are the most prominent examples of this category of Senator. Others include Orrin Hatch and Joe Biden.

The final category is, of course, the party leaders. Sens. Reid, Durbin, McConnell, and Lott, and their designees.

When you look at prospective senators, you can usually guess which group they will wind up fitting into. It was predicable that social liberals like Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar would wind up working primarily on social and domestic policy, while Sens. Webb and McCaskill would work more on issues of national security.

So, when it comes to the 2008 crop of Democratic wannabes, where do they fit in?

In the cases of Reps. Tom Allen and Mark Udall, it is easy. All we have to do is look at their current committee assignments in the House. Allen sits on Energy and Commerce (these are combined in the House) and on Budget. He’s a policy wonk. Mark Udall sits on Armed Services, Natural Resources, and Science and Technology. He could become a national security senator or he could become a policy wonk. What about some of the others?

Al Franken would seem a good fit for the domestic and social issues category, but he might fit into John Kerry and Jay Rockefeller’s mold as primarily a finance man. Bob Kerrey, if he returns, seems a natural for the national security group. Mark Warner would fit into either finance or wonkery (Webb already has the national security profile for this state).

There are many people considering runs for the Senate in ’08. Some are lawyers or Attorney Generals, some are businessmen or women, some are former Governors, some are state legislators, some are journalists, some are political activists, some are veterans. In each case, they are likely to fit into a certain mold.

Another thing to consider is what kind of senator is already serving in their state. For example, in Colorado, Sen. Salazar does Agriculture, Commerce, and Finance. Mark Udall needs to fit into a different group to best assure Colorado has maximum influence. With all the military installations in Colorado, it would pay for Udall to work on national security issues. But he could also focus on health, education, and the environment. If you are a Democrat in a state where you will have crowded primaries—like Minnesota, Georgia, or Oregon—how does each candidate complement the senator you already have?

Whenever I meet a prospective politician I ask them what committees they want to serve on if they are elected. It’s disappointing how frequently they make it clear they haven’t thought about it. One reason I warmed to candidate Patrick Murphy was because he had thought about it. He told me straight out that he wanted to serve on Armed Services and Education, and then he told me why. He currently serves on Armed Services and Intelligence. They didn’t let him become a hybrid, but kept him as a national security congressman. But, that’s okay. Murphy knew why he wanted to serve and he has an opportunity to work on matters that really matter to him.

One thing I would like to see change is the tendency to shunt any liberal that makes it into the Senate (there aren’t many) into the social and domestic areas. If we want a less hawkish foreign policy we need to stop putting hawks on the national security committees.

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