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U.S. Senator Mikulski to chair appropriations panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski will become the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, a powerful congressional panel that controls government purse strings.

A spokeswoman for Mikulski said the decision is expected to be ratified on Thursday at a meeting of the Democratic caucus.

Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who through seniority had been in line to head the Appropriations Committee following the death of veteran chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, announced on Wednesday that instead, he will remain chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary Committee is one of the busiest in Congress, handling a wide range of legislation and nominations.

One high-profile issue the committee is likely to address early next year is tighter federal gun controls, an issue that has moved near the top of the political agenda due to the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

In a message on Twitter, Leahy was first to announce Mikulski's accession to head the Appropriations Committee. "Congratulations to my friend @Senatorbarb who will be 1st woman to chair Senate Appropriations Committee. She'll be great (already is)," Leahy wrote.

Mikulski said in her own Twitter message: "It's an honor & privilege to be expected to follow the great leadership of Senator Inouye as Appropriations Committee chairwoman."

Capitol Hill aides said on Tuesday they expected Inouye's death would set of a round of musical chairs in which Leahy would take over Inouye's chairmanship of the Senate appropriations panel, while Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein of California would assume the Judiciary Committee's chairmanship, and Mikulski would become chairwoman of the intelligence panel.

Now, congressional officials said, with Mikulski chairing the appropriations panel and Leahy remaining in the chair at the Judiciary Committee, Feinstein is expected to remain at the helm of the Intelligence panel.

In a brief statement announcing his decision, Leahy said: "Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont."

Leahy is also expected to chair one of the appropriations panel's powerful subcommittees, congressional aides said.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Lawder.; Editing by Sandra Maler and Christopher Wilson)

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