WASHINGTON — Speculation that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., might not become chairman of the Senate Banking Committee was ended Tuesday by an announcement from one of his colleagues.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., D-Del., said he had decided to lead the Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is the ranking member, instead of challenging Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., for the top seat on the Judiciary Committee. If Sen. Biden had sought the Judiciary helm, a dizzying game of musical chairs for committee assignments would have ensued that could have moved Sen. Sarbanes to head Foreign Relations.

Instead, once Republicans hand over leadership of the Senate to Democrats by June 5, Sen. Sarbanes will be Banking Committee chairman, Sen. Leahy will ascend to Judiciary chairman, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will steer the Agriculture Committee.

Sen. Biden also will head a newly created Senate Judiciary subcommittee responsible for all major criminal justice legislation before the Senate.

Observers said that the Agriculture chairmanship will help Sen. Harkin against challengers in what is expected to be a tough re-election bid in agriculture-dependent Iowa in 2002.

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