WASHINGTON: Daniel Inouye is dead. Who will succeed him? Well, it might be a “she.”

It is callous, even ghoulish, that we media have started speculating on who will succeed one of the nation’s most respected Senators within four hours of his death, but that’s Washington for you. As the condolences and eulogies pour in from Inouye’s former colleagues, they’re also quietly thinking about who takes up his place, or rather places, as chairman both of the Senate Appropriations Committee — the most powerful committee in the Senate — and of the appropriations subcommittee on defense — the most powerful panel on the committee.

Inouye was a lifelong public servant and a war hero, one who lost his right arm earning the Medal of Honor no less, but he was also an old and ailing man who had a dangerous fall a month ago and who had been hospitalized since Dec. 6. You would imagine that someone, if not several someones, had a succession plan for two such critical positions. But this is the Senate, where collegiality still trumps efficiency much of the time.

Just three days ago, when an anonymous Democratic colleague murmured to the Hill newspaper that it might be time for Inouye to step down, senior Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller furiously rebuked the suggestion as “outrageous,” “cowardly,” and “a new low.” So no one will speak up publicly, or even anonymously, any time soon. And with the 113th Congress just weeks from taking office, no one will take anything but temporary measures before the New Year anyway.

Looking ahead, however, the official order of seniority puts Vermont’s Patrick Leahy next in line, followed by Iowa’s Tom Harkin. But that’s the order of seniority both for the defense subcommittee and for the committee as a whole, and it’s unlikely that either man will take both jobs as Inouye did.

So what we’re looking at is a complex game of musical chairs. To take over the full Appropriations Committee, Leahy would presumably have to give up his current chairmanship of Judiciary, a powerful position that might be too painful to part with. Harkin would have to give up HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions), which is not quite as big a sacrifice but still hurts.

Whichever man doesn’t take the full committee could take the defense panel as a consolation prize, but they both already chair other appropriations subcommittees they’d have to give up for that (Foreign Operations for Leahy, Education for Harkin). Frankly neither Senator has been that active on Defense Appropriations this year, which hardly suggests a passion for the position.

So that brings us to the third-ranking Democrat on Appropriations: Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski. Unlike either Leahy or Harkin, she has no other full-committee chair she’d have to give up to take the helm of Appropriations as a whole. To take the defense panel, meanwhile, the subcommittee chair Mikulski would have to give up is Commerce, Justice, & Science, which is no huge sacrifice.

Also unlike her more senior male colleagues, Mikulski has been very active on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showing up for nearly as many hearings as Inouye himself. In fact, Mikulski once took Inouye’s place as chairman, at his request, when the aging Hawaiian had to be absent for “unexpected” (and unspecified) reasons at a March hearing on the Navy.

It’s too much to tout this as a trial run for Inouye’s heir-apparent. More likely Mikulski was simply the most senior committee member who was actually bothering to go to that particular hearing. But as Woody Allen once said, 90% of life is showing up — even in the US Senate.

Whoever takes whichever job, he or she will have big shoes to fill. Rest in piece, Daniel Inouye. Aloha.

[Editorial note: Sen. Barbara Mikulski was formally ratified as the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on December 20th].