Why the Judiciary Committee is the center of the (congressional) universe

January 30, 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee usually enjoys fleeting moments of intense relevancy, usually during a Supreme Court confirmation hearing or debates over the PATRIOT Act. But the panel is now preparing for weeks, if not months, of close attention as it drafts legislation addressing gun control and an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Knowing that this moment was coming, the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), recently turned down an opportunity to chair the plum Senate Appropriations Committee in order to stay in the center of the action.

Leahy insisted in a recent interview with The Washington Post that his current slot “allows me to stay involved with where my passions are," but let's call a spade a spade: Continuing to chair Judiciary ensures Leahy more relevance -- something every senator desperately craves.

The action begins Wednesday when the committee hosts former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, Mark Kelly; Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and other experts for and against stricter federal gun control laws. The panel promises to hold more hearings in the coming weeks on the Second Amendment and potential legislative solutions to the deadly shooting at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.

Then in a shift to the other political issue of the moment -- immigration -- the committee will hold its first hearing on a proposed bipartisan overhaul of immigration laws on Feb. 13, the day after President Obama's State of the Union address.

As the years-long fiscal debate takes a brief back seat to guns and immigration, the new focus promises to push other members of the Judiciary Committee who don't deal with monetary and budgetary issues out front more often.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) planning to let the gun issue works its way through the Senate without his assistance, expect to see and hear often from Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Reid's deputies and long-time gun control advocates. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of the assault weapons ban, also will be a frequent face and voice, as will the panel's ranking Republican, Charles Grassley (Iowa.). All the talk of guns and immigration may also give outsized attention to junior members of the committee, including Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) who wouldn't otherwise score big headlines so early in their tenure.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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