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Senator Feinstein expects to lead judiciary panel

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Dianne Feinstein, a champion of stronger U.S. gun control laws, said on Tuesday she thinks she will become the next head of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would handle such legislation.

Feinstein's move would come as part of a reshuffle of committee chairs in the Democratic-controlled chamber prompted by the death on Monday of 88-year-old Senator Daniel Inouye, who led the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Democratic aides say Senator Patrick Leahy, the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is a strong possibility to take over Inouye's job leading the appropriations panel, a powerful post that oversees federal spending.

That would leave the top judiciary post open, and Feinstein is the Democrat there with the most seniority after Herb Kohl, who is retiring.

Feinstein's move to lead the judiciary panel, meanwhile, would leave the helm of the Senate Intelligence Committee open. Congressional aides said on Tuesday that Senator Barbara Mikulski is considered the leading contender for that job, although they cautioned nothing has been decided yet.

"Keep tuned," Feinstein told reporters outside the Senate on Tuesday when asked if she would become chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee.

"I think it'll happen," Feinstein said.

Leahy was more coy when asked by reporters whether he wanted to become chairman of the appropriations panel. He currently leads the appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid.

"I'll make a decision within 24 hours," Leahy said. "Out of respect for Senator Inouye, we can wait at least 24 hours. ... I've lost a friend of nearly 40 years, I'd kind of like to think about him for that time and not about myself."

Ultimately the chamber's Democratic leadership must recommend new chairmen to the party's caucus. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday that the process would be "finalized" on Wednesday.

"There are still some deliberations going on," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid.

After the elementary school shooting in Connecticut last Friday in which a heavily armed gunman shot dead 20 children and six adults, Feinstein said she plans to introduce legislation to reinstate a ban on assault weapons.

As a much more junior member of Congress, Feinstein was a prime mover behind the first assault weapons ban when it passed in 1994. It expired a decade later, in 2004.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday Obama would support Feinstein's effort to craft legislation to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

If Feinstein no longer heads the intelligence committee, Senator Ron Wyden has seniority over Mikulski on that panel. But he is the incoming chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar said that Mikulski is a hard-working member of the intelligence panel. "Intelligence community officers can expect pointed, well-informed questions in any hearing or briefing that she chairs," Pillar said.

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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