A prime chairmanship is poised to come open in the Senate next year. The problem? No GOP senators seem to want it.
Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonGeorgia governor’s adviser hits back at Gaetz: ‘We don’t care what you think’ Gaetz warns Georgia governor of possible primary challenge if he doesn’t tap Trump’s favored Senate pick Georgia governor to tap Loeffler for Senate over Collins MORE (R-Ga.) is set to retire in approximately a month, creating an opening atop the Senate Ethics Committee, a behind-the-scenes panel responsible for enforcing standards of behavior for senators and their staff and investigating potential violations of federal law or the Senate’s rules.
Isakson, who has chaired the committee for nearly five years, told The Hill that he doesn’t know who his successor will be, but encouraged his colleagues to accept the chairmanship if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers bypass embattled Mulvaney in spending talks Whole Foods Market responds to criticism by clarifying it’s not affiliated with magazine that named McConnell ‘Person of the Year’ Lawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank MORE (R-Ky.) asks them.
“It’s an honor to do it, and if asked, they ought to,” he said.
But GOP senators who spoke with The Hill, including current members of the committee, had a near universal response when asked if they wanted to take over the Ethics Committee: Thanks, but thanks.
“Uh, I’m going to say probably not,” said Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThe Hill’s 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Trump calls into ‘Fox & Friends,’ talks impeachment The Hill’s Morning Report — Schiff: Clear evidence of a quid pro quo Trump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms MORE (R-W.Va.), a member of GOP leadership, laughing when asked if she would like to chair the committee. “I don’t think that’s a sought after position.”
The lack of enthusiasm comes as the normally secretive committee has had high-profile investigations in recent years, putting a spotlight on why finding Isakson’s successor could prove difficult: No one relishes investigating their colleagues.
Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMichelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule MORE (R-Mo.), another member of leadership, said he doesn’t know who will take over the committee. Asked if he was interested, he added an emphatic, drawn out, “nooooo.”
Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPoll: Interest in impeachment inquiry dips among Democratic voters The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Trump calls into ‘Fox & Friends,’ talks impeachment Trump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms MORE (R-Texas), who previously served as vice chairman, acknowledged that it’s up to the leader, but he’s not interested.
“I served my time on the Ethics Committee and I think I’ll give somebody else the opportunity,” he said.
The decision about who will lead the committee rests with McConnell, who previously tapped Isakson to take over as chairman when Republicans took back the majority in 2015.
A GOP aide said conversations had not yet started about who will succeed Isakson, who announced that he would step down at the end of December due to ongoing health issues.
Several Republicans who currently oversee other committees also indicated they had no interest in taking on Ethics.
Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTwo airmen killed in flight ‘mishap’ at Oklahoma Air Force base Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week MORE (R-Okla.) said he would rather undergo a dental procedure.
“Are you kidding? Are you kidding? I’d rather have a root canal,” he said.
Asked if he wanted to take over the committee, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyLawmakers bypass embattled Mulvaney in spending talks House, Senate reach deal on fiscal 2020 spending figures Trump signs short-term spending bill to avert shutdown MORE (R-Ala.) responded: “Oh no, no, no, but I’m sure that the leadership will put somebody in there that’s solid, good, substantive person. I like what I’m doing.”
“I would like to stay as chairman of the Appropriations Committee,” Shelby continued, before cupping his hand over his mouth and adding, “so would most of the other senators.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyMichael Moore: Comparing Trump’s Ukraine dealings to Hunter Biden’s is a ‘false equivalency’ Trump draws ire after retreat on drug prices pledge GOP senators ask Treasury for financial reports on Hunter Biden MORE (R-Iowa) started laughing when asked if he was interested in chairing the Ethics Committee, saying “absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
Grassley noted that he’s currently chairman of the Finance Committee. When told that Isakson chairs two committees, Grassley remarked: “He does? Well, don’t tell anybody else that.”
Isakson is the only GOP senator to oversee two panels: Ethics and Veterans Affairs.
Veterans Affairs, unlike Appropriations, Armed Services and Finance, also isn’t considered an “A” committee under Senate GOP caucus rules.
Ethics also isn’t considered a “standing” committee under the chamber’s rules, a technical designation that places fewer restrictions on who leadership can pick for the role while still complying with Senate GOP caucus rules.
Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate roundtable showcases importance and needs of women entrepreneurs GOP braces for Democratic spending onslaught in battle for Senate Impeachment will make some Senate Republicans squirm MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham on House Judiciary’s impeachment plans: ‘Salem witches got a better deal’ The Hill’s Morning Report — Dems and Trump score separate court wins Republicans preview impeachment defense strategy MORE (R-S.C.) and Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoLawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions’s comeback bid GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe MORE (R-Idaho) — who oversee the Aging, Judiciary and Banking Committees, respectively — also passed on taking over the Ethics gavel.
The panel, unlike most Senate committees, is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, who have three members each.
The two other GOP members, Sens. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischChina issues directive to ‘intensify’ protections around intellectual property rights Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown MORE (R-Idaho) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill’s Morning Report — House set for Phase 3 of impeachment push Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry Trump says Pompeo would ‘win in a landslide’ if he ran for Senate MORE (R-Kansas), would on paper be obvious potential successors for Isakson. Neither, however, seemed particularly interested.
Roberts, who is retiring at the end of 2020, said it was up to McConnell. Asked if he wanted to be the chairman he noted that he was likely stuck on the committee either way.
“I’ve been on the damn committee for now, what, 22 years? It’s a Senate record, everybody else gets on and gets off, and they won’t let me get off,” he said, before heading into an elevator.
Risch, asked if he wanted to be the next chairman, was more direct: “I can only tell you that I sure hope not.”
The Ethics Committee normally flies below the radar. According to its annual 2018 report, released in January of this year, the committee received 138 allegations of Senate rules violations. It opened a preliminary inquiry into 16 of those allegations.
But its job as the chamber’s own watchdog also puts its members in the middle of high-profile scandals involving their own colleagues.
In 2018, the panel made headlines when it “severely admonished” Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden MORE (D-N.J.) in a public letter, saying he had broken Senate rules, federal law and “applicable standards of conduct.”
It was the first time the committee had publicly admonished a senator since 2012.
Isakson acknowledged that chairing the committee can at times be awkward because you’re responsible for investigating colleagues, or their staffs, that you have to work with on a day-to-day basis.
“Well, sometimes you’re asked to do things you’d rather not have to do,” he said, “because you’re dealing with your colleagues.”
For example, in 2017, the panel opened an investigation into then-Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTake Trump literally and seriously in Minnesota Ninth woman accuses Al Franken of inappropriate contact Al Franken to host SiriusXM radio show MORE (D-Minn.), who ultimately resigned facing several allegations of sexual misconduct and unwanted touching.
McConnell also predicted in 2017 that Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreFormer AG Sessions enters Alabama Senate race Campaign ad casts Sessions as a ‘traitor’ ahead of expected Senate run Doug Jones on potential challenge from Sessions: Alabama GOP primary will be ‘really divisive’ MORE, then the party’s Senate candidate in Alabama, would also automatically become entangled with the panel if he won the seat because of multiple allegations of pursuing relationships with women in their teens when he was in his 30’s.
It’s the sort of responsibility for internal policing that makes a volunteer stepping forward to lead the panel starting in January unlikely.
Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: House to vote on anti-robocall bill | DHS issues draft order to boost agency cybersecurity | Apple updates maps to show Crimea as Russian territory | TikTok blocks teen after clip critical of China Lawmakers tee up vote on compromise bill targeting robocalls Senators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, acknowledged they haven’t found someone to succeed Isakson. He then spotted Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions’s comeback bid VA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal MORE (R-Ark.), who played football in college, waiting for an elevator behind him and eagerly changed the subject.
“Boozman!” he said, before turning back to reporters. “Have you seen his football pose?”
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