WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s hopes of taking over the panel that will be crucial to her efforts to renew an assault weapons ban and overhaul immigration laws were dashed Wednesday when Sen. Patrick J. Leahy decided to remain chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The California Democrat had expected to become the first woman to chair the committee following the death of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) this week. Leahy was widely expected to seek to succeed Inouye as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which oversees billions of dollars in federal spending.
But Leahy, a former prosecutor who became the Senate’s most senior member after Inouye’s death, surprised colleagues by announcing that he wanted to remain Judiciary Committee chairman while continuing to serve as a senior Appropriations Committee member.
He said that would “allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont,” his home state.
In a statement, Feinstein said: “I’m very happy where I am. I will continue to serve as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and support the leadership of Chairman Leahy, and I’m delighted to continue to chair the Intelligence Committee and provide important oversight to the 16 agencies of our intelligence community.”
The appropriations gavel is now expected to go to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
Leahy’s decision may reflect the diminished attraction of the Appropriations Committee at a time when lawmakers can no longer earmark funds for their pet projects and are under pressure to rein in spending.
Feinstein, expected to remain chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, will be the second most senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. She has made it a top priority, following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, to seek to renew a version of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which she regards as a signature achievement but which lapsed in 2004.