Tax Panel Awaits McCrery Move

Posted February 20, 2004 at 6:04pm

Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) is seriously contemplating leaving Congress next January, a move that would shake up the race to chair the Ways and Means Committee in the 110th Congress and create a third competitive open seat in the Bayou State.

“I am in the process of re-examining my obligation to my family, my constituents, my supporters, and to the House,” McCrery said in a statement Friday, adding that he goes through this process every two years and will decide “sometime in March.”

But Republican sources said Friday that the lawmaker is entertaining the possibility of retiring much more strongly now than in years past.

Currently the seventh-most senior Republican on Ways and Means, McCrery would by no means be a shoo-in to take over the panel when current Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) reaches his six-year limit and surrenders the gavel following the 109th Congress.

But while there are other candidates above him on the committee roster, McCrery is certainly seen as a strong contender for the post and has openly expressed his desire for it in the past.

He is Thomas’ closest ally on the committee, and the chairman revived the previously defunct subcommittee on select revenue measures in 2001 partly to ensure the Louisianan had a gavel.

The soft-spoken McCrery is also well-liked by the Republican leadership. He has been active in both the policy and political arenas, heading up the National Republican Congressional Committee’s incumbent retention program for three cycles while earning a reputation as a prolific fundraiser. He ended 2003 with $626,000 in his campaign account.

While McCrery’s potential Ways and Means chairmanship could entice him to stay, it could also have the opposite effect given his desire to be closer to his family. If the Louisianan stays in the House and competes for the gavel, he would essentially be committing himself to spending at least eight more years in Washington.

“I am not satisfied with how my duties as a husband and a father are being met with in the context of my job,” McCrery said in Friday’s statement.

If McCrery goes, the race to replace Thomas becomes much less clear, according to senior Republican aides.

Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), who lost out to Thomas for the gavel in 2001 and is currently second on the roster, could make another chairmanship bid, though he will be 76 at the start of the 110th Congress.

Just below Crane on the roster are Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), who briefly made his own bid for the gavel last time around but was never seen as a serious contender, and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.).

As co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group, Johnson would bring some ideological balance to the largely conservative slate of committee chairs, though some on the right flank of the Republican Conference might be wary of installing a centrist in such an influential position. Gender could also play a role, as there are currently no Republican women who hold full committee gavels in the House.

When Thomas was made chairman, he vaulted over Crane, and there have been a handful of other examples in recent years of the Steering Committee reaching down panel seniority lists to hand out gavels, though leaders are typically wary of bruising too many egos.

“You pass over a lot of people at your own peril,” said a senior Republican aide.

On Ways and Means, less-senior lawmakers who could mount legitimate chairmanship bids include GOP Reps. Dave Camp (Mich.), Jim Nussle (Iowa) and Rob Portman (Ohio).

In Louisiana, meanwhile, McCrery’s decision threatens to further complicate an already confused political picture.

The retirement of Sen. John Breaux (D) has set off a three-way race to replace him between Reps. David Vitter (R) and Chris John (D) as well as state Treasurer John Kennedy (D).

Vitter’s suburban New Orleans 1st district is strongly Republican, but the candidacy of 2003 gubernatorial nominee Bobby Jindal (R) has drawn significant attention.

John’s 7th district is much more competitive between the parties and candidates on both sides are gearing up for a race that will feature considerable spending by the national party committees.

Meanwhile, in the 3rd district, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) has said he will not run again but speculation continues to swirl that he will resign his seat before the November election, setting off a special election to replace him.

Former state Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) has announced his candidacy, while former state Rep. Hunt Downer is the leading Republican candidate. If Downer decides against the race, Tauzin’s son Billy III, a lobbyist for BellSouth, is mentioned.

That seat is the second most Democratic in the state and a top target for both parties.

If McCrery vacates his northwestern Louisiana seat, Democrats are likely to pour resources into that swing district as well.

While McCrery has held it easily since winning a special election to replace Rep. Buddy Roemer (D) in 1988, the district has been extremely competitive for statewide candidates.

President George W. Bush took 55 percent there in 2000, but Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) carried the district in the November open primary and December runoff last cycle as did Kathleen Blanco (D) in the 2003 gubernatorial race.

The district is also roughly one-third black, according to the 2001 Census making it ripe territory for Democrats.

While no Republicans have put their names forth yet, the two most often mentioned Democrats are state Rep. Taylor Townsend and Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower.

Townsend said Friday he is considering a race either against McCrery or for a vacancy and is opening an exploratory committee to raise money for either possibility.

“I want to be in a position that if the facts out there right now change, we can shift and go from a candidate who is looking at running to a candidate who is running,” explained Townsend.

A Natchitoches trial attorney, Townsend gained immediate renown when he defeated state Rep. Jimmy Long Sr. (D) by 196 votes to win his seat in 1999.

Long is a cousin of former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and former Louisiana Sen. Russell Long.

He had served 32 years in the state legislature and was endorsed in the race by then Gov. Mike Foster (R), then Lt. Gov. Blanco (D) and state House Speaker Downer.

Townsend has strong political family connections of his own, as his uncle is state Sen. Don Kelly, a longtime Louisiana legislator.

He also enjoys good relationships with the organized labor and trial lawyer communities, said one knowledgeable Democratic source. Those groups are two of the biggest financial backers of Democratic candidates nationwide.

Hightower has served as mayor of Shreveport — the district’s largest city — since 1998 and was re-elected to the post in 2002. He has previously pledged to serve out his full four-year term.

Hightower said he would “absolutely” look at the race if McCrery retires, but added: “He has done a good job for us and if he’s staying I am not running.”

A spokesman for Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, another potential candidate, said he would not run for the House seat but did not rule out a Campbell Senate candidacy.