Unfortunately, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) has been suffering from bad health recently and he is beginning to show his advanced age. There is a lot of talk in Washington about replacing him as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, mainly because the position carries such a heavy workload. Last year, Sen. Byrd received a lot of help from Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). In any case, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is third in seniority on the committee and he has expressed an interest in taking over the chair.

Sen. Patrick Leahy is privately indicating interest in taking over the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee from an ailing Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) if necessary, four Democratic sources said Thursday.

The Vermont Democrat, third-in-line on the panel, strongly denied those claims. But all four sources said Leahy has sent several signals to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about the move.

“It’s been going on. There have been lots of whispers in Reid’s ear,” said one Democratic source.

Leahy “has tried to meet with Reid several times” about Byrd’s chairmanship, according to another source.

It’s a touchy issue because Sen. Byrd has served longer than any other senator in the history of the nation.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is not pushing for the position publicly or privately and that his real interest remains in the Judiciary Committee.

“Oh hell no. Good God, no. I don’t know where that rumor started,” Leahy said. “I will support the seniority system. I will support Senator Byrd as long as he wants to be chairman. I will vote for whoever is next in line.”

Next in line is Daniel Inouye (D-HI), but he doesn’t appear to be lobbying for the chair. If Byrd steps down it will create a game of musical committee chairs. Here’s an example:

If Inouye were to take over Appropriations he’d have to give up his Commerce Committee chair. Next in line for Commerce is Rockefeller, but he already chairs Intelligence. Next in line for Intelligence is Diane Feinstein, but she already chairs Rules. If Rockefeller doesn’t take the Commerce job, then it falls to John Kerry, but he already chairs Small Business. Next in line for Small Business are Levin and Harkin, but they already chair, respectively, Armed Services and Agriculture, so the job would fall to Mary Landreau. Meanwhile, if Inouye passes on the Appropriations gig and Leahy gets it, he will have to give up chairing the Judiciary Committee. That, then, will fall to Teddy Kennedy.

This probably all seems mind-numbingly boring, but it’s actually very important. If you happen to live in Vermont, the prospect of having one of your senators chairing Appropriations is exciting…and lucrative. Sens. Byrd, Lott, Cochran, and Stevens are notorious for bringing the bacon home to their states. And when committee chairs get shuffled in Washington, so does the whole balance and focus of power.