“It is widely expected by many that Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., will take over the chairmanship of the appropriations committee,” Tyler Wegmeyer, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee staff, told growers attending the 2003 Deep South Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Mobile.

For that to happen, Republicans must hold on to most of the Senate seats they currently hold, or pick up some of the seats held by Democrats that are up for grabs next November.

Four Southern Senators are retiring at the end of this term, intensifying the battle over which party will control the Senate. Announcing they will not seek election to another term are Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Currently, 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Independent occupy Senate seats. In 2004, 34 Senate seats will be up for re-election. Of those, 19 are currently held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans.

How the Senate Agriculture Committee functions after next year’s election is anyone’s guess, says Wegmeyer. However, if Republicans are still in control, a handful of Senators will find themselves moving to more powerful chairmanships.

“If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, five committee chairmen will be required to relinquish their posts because of term limits. The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska, is one who will have to step down from his post.”

Assuming Cochran were to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he would give up his seat at the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“The line to succeed Sen. Cochran in the agriculture committee is a bit more murky,” says Wegmeyer.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who was previously Senate Agriculture Committee chairman currently chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is unlikely to give up that post. Next in line would be Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but he would have to give up his position as majority whip to take the chairmanship, and that is also unlikely, according to Senate insiders.

That leaves Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who currently chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The Senate Intelligence Committee is a very important committee right now, and so it is probably a toss up of whether or not Sen. Roberts would leave that post to chair the Agriculture Committee,” says Wegmeyer.

If Sen. Roberts were to remain at the helm of the Senate Intelligence Committee, then the agriculture chairmanship could pass all the way down to freshman Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

“There is certainly the potential for a lot of changes for the next Congress,” says Wegmeyer.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com