Being three heartbeats from the presidency won’t change U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the seventh-term Iowa Republican said Wednesday after GOP colleagues nominated him to be president pro tempore, which would make him the first Iowan in decades to be in the constitutional line of presidential succession.
The Senate president pro tempore, traditionally the most senior member of the majority party, is third in the line of presidential succession, following the vice president and the speaker of the House.
“Don’t expect me to be anything other than Iowa’s U.S. senator, which is my life’s biggest honor,” Grassley said during his weekly conference call with Iowa reporters.
It is an honor “for me and the state of Iowa” to serve as president pro tempore, Grassley said about being nominated to one of only a handful of offices specified in the Constitution.
Before addressing his own nomination, Grassley reported that his Iowa colleague, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, was elected vice chairwoman of the Republican Senate Conference. She defeated Nebraska Sen. Den Fischer in the only contested leadership race.
Grassley, 85, was nominated by members of the 116th Congress’ Senate GOP caucus. He is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate Jan. 3 to succeed current Senate president pro tempore Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is retiring at the end of this term.
The new responsibilities, which include opening the Senate each day and ceremonial functions, will not interfere with serving as a committee chairman, Grassley said.
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He has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee for four years, noted for shepherding the U.S. Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
But he is considering whether to give up that role to instead be chairman of the Finance Committee, which he formerly chaired. He expects to announce his choice soon — after consulting with colleagues who would be affected by his decision.
As president pro tem, Grassley plans to “continue to foster the Senate’s role as a more deliberative body” and help it uphold its constitutional duty as a check on the executive and judicial branches of government, including deciding whether to confirm presidential nominees.
Also in his new role, Grassley said, he will “have a seat at the table” at Senate leadership meetings.
Participating in those leadership discussions along with Ernst is “exciting news for Iowans who can be sure their voices will be heard more than ever, leveraging even more leadership for Iowa in the nation’s capital,” Grassley said.
He believes it’s the first time both Iowa senators have held leadership positions in the Senate majority.
The only other Iowan to serve as president pro tempore was Sen. Albert Cummins, who was first chosen in 1919. Cummins, who worked in the Clayton County Recorder’s Office before serving as Iowa governor, held the post in the 66th, 67th, 68th and 69th Congresses.
Another Iowan, Henry Wallace, was in the presidential line of succession from 1941-45 when he served as vice president to Franklin D. Roosevelt. And of course another Iowan, Herbert Hoover, was president during the Great Depression.
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Perhaps because it’s unlikely that he will be called on to assume the presidency, Grassley said he’s not concerned about the gravitas attached to the title.
“I may only be three heartbeats away from the Oval Office,” he said, “but my heart is and always will be in Iowa and here in the U.S. Senate, where I’ve worked for the people of Iowa and our nation for 38 years.”
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