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As the House GOP grapples with a half-dozen leadership races on the ballot Friday, a similarly important decision awaits the Republican Conference next month: whether to keep Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.) as the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee.
Lewis is not facing term limits in his position, and normally a chairman would have no trouble moving smoothly into a ranking member slot. But a combination of circumstances — most notably the ongoing federal investigation of Lewis and some remaining hurt feelings from this year’s earmark reform debate — have made Lewis’ path into the ranking member post less smooth.
“I think he’s out,” predicted a senior GOP leadership aide.
That aide and other leadership sources said they believed the bad publicity associated with the ongoing investigation of Lewis would be enough to make the Republican Steering Committee — which likely will meet to hand out panel assignments in December — leery of keeping Lewis in his post.
At the same time, those sources cautioned that there had not yet been any serious discussions within the leadership or among Steering Committee members about moving Lewis out or about who would replace him if he was ousted.
Lewis spokesman John Scofield said his boss had heard nothing to indicate that his position might be in jeopardy.
“Chairman Lewis is proud of his record of reform and has every expectation that he will continue as ranking member of the committee,” Scofield said. “Last year, we avoided an omnibus, eliminated scores of programs saving billions of dollars and dramatically reduced both the number and dollars spent on earmarks. He has not heard from any Member who is unhappy with his record.”
The Justice Department currently is probing Lewis’ relationship with ex-Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.) and his now-defunct lobbying firm, Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White. The firm had a lucrative business obtaining earmarks from Lewis for defense clients and for towns in the Californian’s district. The investigation is an outgrowth of the probe that brought down jailed ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Several of those towns and local entities that received earmarks have been subpoenaed, and Lewis’ personal financial disclosure forms as well as those of his wife, a current aide and a former aide have been examined by the FBI.
Lewis has steadfastly denied doing anything unethical or illegal, and since June he has spent more than $800,000 out of his re-election account on legal bills.
Given that the GOP just lost its majority based at least in part on voters’ distaste for Congressional scandals — particularly the Cunningham story and the Jack Abramoff affair, both of which centered on earmarks — some Republican leadership sources said they thought the Conference would want to create a clean slate by removing a potential magnet for negative publicity from such a prominent slot.
Separately, Lewis engaged in a high-profile fight with the Republican leadership this year over the scope of earmark reform legislation. Lewis and most Appropriations members argued that the reform bill unfairly singled out their panel for scrutiny while not tightening rules enough for authorization bills and tax measures.
Members of the Appropriations panel strongly backed Lewis in his fight, though many conservatives and GOP leaders were less enamored of his position. Lewis’ stubbornness irked Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and especially Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Boehner currently is the leading candidate for Minority Leader, while Hastert will be out of leadership by January. What remains unclear is who exactly will make up the roster of the Steering panel in the 110th Congress and how many Californians, appropriators and other lawmakers sympathetic to Lewis will be on it. The Steering panel is expected to meet in December.
If Lewis is pushed out, he has no obvious successor. Former Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) would not be barred by Conference term-limit rules from returning as ranking member. Below Young on the panel roster are GOP Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Hal Rogers (Ky.), both of whom were defeated by Lewis for the chairmanship in 2005.
Regula’s office declined to comment for this story, and Rogers’ office did not respond to requests for comment.