WASHINGTON -- A leadership shake-up announced Wednesday by Senate Democrats due to Ted Kennedy's death will continue to empower the party's more left-leaning members on crucial issues, with Sen. Tom Harkin set to take over health care.
Harkin, an Iowa Democrat whose old-fashioned progressivism was not unlike Kennedy's, will replace the former Massachusetts senator as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut will remain in charge of the banking committee and help Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., oversee a complex rewrite of the rules governing the nation's financial institutions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters the decision was based on simple seniority and that Harkin -- an ardent supporter of the White House proposal to offer Americans a government insurance option -- was a "perfect fit."
Harkin's departure from the agriculture committee hands that chairmanship to Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a more moderate Democrat but staunch supporter of government farm subsidies.
The new post will likely be a boon for Lincoln, who faces a potentially tough re-election fight next year and could use the committee perch to aid Arkansas farmers.
Dodd, who had been next in line to replace Kennedy and who also faces a difficult re-election, said he was tempted to succeed his close friend and mentor on the health committee.
But, he said, he wanted to continue his work on legislation aimed at preventing another financial collapse.
Among his top priorities is creating a new agency dedicated solely to protecting consumers from fraud and abuse by mortgage and credit card companies. Republicans oppose the plan as an example of big government and say it would discourage financial institutions from developing innovative products that people want.
"If Ted Kennedy were here today, he'd applaud wildly the fact that Tom Harkin is going to lead his committee. So I'm happy to turn over those reins to him," Dodd said.
In recent years, Harkin has used his chairmanship on the agriculture committee to aid family farmers. And as a senior member of the health committee, Harkin helped Kennedy draft the panel's bill and defended the public insurance option.
"I think that's the essential part of health reform, and that is to have one public plan that is portable. No matter where you live, no matter where you move, you know you can get this plan," Harkin told reporters this summer.
Harkin also is known for his ardent defense of embryonic stem cell research. In 2006, Harkin worked with Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, to push through legislation that would have lifted restrictions on federal funding for the research. President George W. Bush vetoed the bill.
Dodd's decision not to step down as chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee means that Sen. Tim Johnson will remain the No. 2 Democrat on the committee.
Johnson's potential ascension through the ranks had excited the financial industry because he is considered more sympathetic to their business than Dodd. Johnson's home state of South Dakota is a major operational hub for several credit card companies.
When asked by reporters on Wednesday, Johnson said he was fine with Dodd's decision.
"My time will come," Johnson said. "It's understandable that Chris Dodd would not jump out in midstream in complex banking issues."