The 110th Congress
How much power is wielded in committees and subcommittees? When a bill is sent to a committee, the bill is reviewed and changes are made in a mark up session. This is how the text of S 65 was inserted into HR 5576, the Transportation Appropriations Bill was added in the 109th Congress. In order for a bill to leave committee (to be reported), it requires a simple majority vote. Since the party in control has chairmanship and a majority of seats in committees, the majority party has a great deal of control over the contents of a bill and whether a bill becomes a law.
To illustrate the power of the majority party, let's examine the infamous Bridge to Nowhere. For those not familiar with the Bridge to Nowhere, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) were able to secure $223 million in the 2005 Highway Bill to fund a bridge to connect Gravina Island, AK (population 50) to the Alaska mainland. Gravina Island is currently served by an airport and a ferry that runs every half hour. Rep. Young was the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Sen. Stevens was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
How secure is the Democrats control of the Senate? Not very. On 13 December 2006, the Republicans almost regained control of the Senate. On that day, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), underwent emergency brain surgery due to a congenital arteriovenous malformation. In pilots peak, Sen. Johnson had surgery due to bleeding in his brain. As of 3 January 2007, Sen Johnson's official website had a press release on his condition. In it, Dr. Vivek Deshmukh, MD, neurosurgeon, stated: "Senator Johnson continues to be responsive to both his family and physicians-- following commands, squeezing his wife's hand, and understanding speech."
How does Senator Johnson's medical condition affect control of the Senate? Because if he is unable to complete his term in office, the governor of South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) can appoint a person of his choosing to serve until a general election can be held in this case, the 4 Nov 2008 election. Since it's fairly safe to assume that Gov. Rounds would appoint a Republican, this would shift the balance of power to a 50-50 split. In a tie, the Vice President has the tie-breaking vote, which would give the majority back to the Republicans.
So what happens to control of the committees? That matter is decided by the organizing resolution, a Senate resolution which determined how committee memberships are allotted between the two parties as well as chairmanship and ranking member of the committees. Typically, the resolutions stand until the next Congress, even if the majority shifts to the other party. However, in 2001, the Senate balance was 50-50 with Vice President Cheney as the tie-breaker, giving control of all Senate committees to the Republicans. There was a clause inserted in the 107th Congress organizing resolution that stated that if the majority shifted, there would be a new organizing resolution. So when Senator Jeffords left the Republican party to become an Independent and caucus with the Democrats, all committees were reformed to give the Democrats a majority. As of 12 Jan 2007, I have not been able to find an organizing resolution for the 110th Congress it is likely still being debated upon in the backrooms of the Senate. If there is a clause inserted into the 110th Congress organizing resolution that a new organizing resolution is required if the majority shifts, then it is possible for the Republicans to regain control of all committees in the Senate.
On 9 January, Senator Johnson condition was upgraded from critical to fair and is no longer on a ventilator. He was moved to the in-patient rehabilitation unit at George Washington University Hospital. Senator Johnson turned age 60 on 28 December 2006.