Updated at: 12/19/2012 5:06 PM
By JIM ABRAMS
(AP) WASHINGTON - Sen. Patrick Leahy said Wednesday he would remain as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee rather than take over the top slot on the Appropriations Committee, which became vacant this week with the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Leahy, a seven-term Democrat from Vermont, said in a statement that continuing to chair the Judiciary Committee while "maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont."
Leahy said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would become the first woman to chair the Appropriations Committee.
Appropriations long has been one of the most coveted committee assignments because the panel holds power over annual spending programs. But the committee has also seen its luster fade in recent years because of the inability of Congress to act on individual spending bills and new restrictions on the ability to approve or disapprove special projects requested by lawmakers.
The Judiciary Committee, on the other hand, is expected to play a prominent role in any gun control and immigration legislation that could be on the agenda next year.
Leahy’s decision disrupts what had been expected to be shifts in committee assignments with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., taking Leahy’s job on Judiciary and Mikulski succeeding Feinstein as head of the Intelligence Committee.
Next in line in seniority among Democrats on Appropriations are Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Mikulski and Patty Murray of Washington. Harkin now chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Murray has a leadership post in the party.
With Inouye’s death, the 72-year-old Leahy has taken over as president pro tempore of the Senate, a position that puts him third in the line of presidential succession after Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. The largely symbolic position usually goes to the member of the majority party with the most seniority. Inouye, who died Monday at age 88, was first elected as senator from Hawaii in 1962.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)