WASHINGTON -- Behind-the-scenes jostling for committee chairmanships in the U.S. Senate has left Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski poised to take over the Senate Intelligence Committee -- a move experts said Tuesday could bolster the role cybersecurity plays in the state's economy.
But depending on what more senior lawmakers decide, the Maryland Democrat could also be in line to lead the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which oversees the Silver Spring-based Food and Drug Administration and would direct the reauthorization of key education programs.
Mikulski, the most senior member of the Senate without a committee chairmanship, is in position to receive a committee gavel following a domino-like series of moves that began this week with the death of the Senate's most senior lawmaker, Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye.
It would be the first time a Maryland lawmaker has held a chairmanship of one of the Senate's 16 standing committees since Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes led the Banking Committee a decade ago.
If Mikulski takes over the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the move would have implications for the National Security Agency and other high-tech spy agencies and contractors based at Fort Meade. At a time when all government offices are facing budget cuts, Mikulski would be in a powerful position to advocate for the NSA.
"She has a passion for the subject," said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, also a Democrat. A Mikulski chairmanship, he said, would reinforce "Maryland as the dominant state in the nation on cybersecurity."
But Mikulski, who is 76 and was elected to the Senate in 1986, has also been a highly visible member of the health committee. Even after the Senate Finance Committee took over the drafting of President Barack Obama's signature health care law in 2009, Mikulski managed to use her seat on the health committee to push for preventive health care services for women to be included in the measure.
Mikulski declined to comment Tuesday.
The jockeying over committee assignments remained fluid and almost entirely out of sight late Tuesday as senators came to the floor to honor Inouye. The former president pro-tempore of the Senate died at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda on Monday. He was 88.
As is the custom, Inouye's desk in the Senate chamber was draped in black and decorated with white flowers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said new chairmanships will be announced Wednesday.
Members of the intelligence committee, including Mikulski, will face controversial issues in the coming months, including whether to publicly release a voluminous report on interrogation techniques used by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. That report, which Republicans have boycotted, addresses the use of waterboarding and "black site" prisons overseas.
The committee also must decide whether and how to untangle competing cybersecurity legislation in the House and Senate intended to bolster the government's response to computer hackers. The House approved a bipartisan bill in April that would make it easier for intelligence agencies and private companies to share information about potential cyber attacks.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, who represents Fort Meade, is the top-ranking Democrat on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the House. He was key to the cyber bill's passage in the GOP-led House, despite resistance from Senate Democrats and the White House.
That legislation has underscored a broader issue that sets the House and Senate intelligence committees apart: The Senate committee has proven far more partisan.
"Mikulski has a reputation for being a bit of a firebrand -- she's not afraid to tell you what's on her on mind, which will probably rub a lot of her Republican counterparts the wrong way," said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian and expert. "If she does become the chairwoman of the committee, you could probably anticipate that the partisan gulf would deepen."
But, Aid noted, Mikulski also has a reputation as a defender of the NSA and other intelligence agencies based in Maryland, including the U.S. Cyber Command and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Both are tied to the Department of Defense and are also based at Fort Meade.
"There's just an enormous agenda," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists who specializes in intelligence issues. "I think the overriding issue is how best to navigate reductions in spending. Intel, like other parts of the government, is going to have a smaller budget."
The health and education committee will also have a hand in high-profile policy, including the possible reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which will set national education policy for elementary and secondary education. The committee has recently been looking into this year's fungal meningitis outbreak.
Mikulski's ascension to a committee post is not certain. In fact, she had been considered a candidate for the top spot on the health committee in 2009 after its chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, died of a brain tumor. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin took the seat instead.
But the path for Mikulski is more clear this time.
Inouye, a decorated veteran of World War II, was chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. By seniority, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is entitled to that slot.
"I'm thinking about it," Leahy said abruptly when asked Tuesday about his plans.
If Leahy indeed took the spending committee's top spot, he would relinquish the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next in line for that opening is California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein is the current Intelligence Committee chairwoman.
The Judiciary Committee would be a natural position for Feinstein to push the renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons, a signature concern of hers. That legislation has taken on added significance in the wake of last week's shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Feinstein indicated to reporters Tuesday that she would likely take over the judiciary committee, clearing the way for Mikulski on intelligence.
The only other lawmaker ahead of Mikulski for the Intelligence Committee chairmanship is Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. Wyden was recently named as chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Asked whether he wanted the intelligence slot, Wyden said he would leave it to Democratic leaders to make any committee announcements. Pressed on whether he had a preference -- energy or intelligence -- Wyden demurred: "I'm going to just leave it at that."