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Republican Priorities Will Test Next Labor-HHS Chairman

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Whoever serves as chairman after Rehberg will play a significant role in GOP attempts to cut off funding for Obama’s signature health care law.

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg’s departure from Congress leaves vacant the chairmanship of an appropriations panel that figures prominently for Republicans who want to shrink the budget and gut the 2010 health care law.

The House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education is in charge of the largest nondefense discretionary spending bill. And whoever serves as chairman after Rehberg would play a significant role in GOP attempts to cut off funding for President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, a strategy that is one of few weapons the GOP has left to interfere with its implementation.

At the same time, the chairman will face tough budgeting decisions in a spending-wary environment. And to stop the recent history of not passing a separate Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, the chairman will need to compromise with Democrats on the measure’s spending levels and many controversial provisions.

“It’s not the plum assignment it once was, and it’s a thankless job,” said Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding, which represents public health organizations. “It’s fun to spend money; it’s not fun to cut everything.”

At least four names are in the mix to take over the chairmanship: Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Mike Simpson of Idaho and Rodney Alexander of Louisiana. All but Young currently serve on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee.

John Porter, a former Labor-HHS-Education panel chairman now with Research!America, notes that, traditionally, Republicans go down the membership list of the full committee by seniority when selecting subcommittee chairmen.

Young is the most senior of the four on the full Appropriations Committee, and he is hitting term limits in his role as chairman of the Defense subcommittee. He could get a waiver to continue serving, or he could move to be the chairman of another subcommittee.

A former full committee chairman, Young also served on the health subcommittee for more than 20 years. He has been a vocal advocate for medical research and successfully campaigned to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health.

Kingston chairs the Agriculture subcommittee and Simpson is in charge of the Interior bill. Neither has reached his term limits on those panels and may not want to switch. Porter predicted they would want to stay in place.

“Mr. Kingston is willing to serve in any capacity that allows him to continue his pursuit of a smaller, more efficient federal government,” an aide to the congressman said in an email.

Alexander’s spokesman, Jamie Hanks, confirmed that the congressman is interested in the subcommittee chairman spot.

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