Two Years Out, Members Plot Races for Gavels

Posted September 9, 2004 at 3:42pm

Ambitious House Members looking to pad their résumés usually can go in only two directions: up or out.

Some of these lawmakers envision running for a leadership post or for higher office. But a good many of the rest on the Republican side of the aisle are flipping their calendars more than two years into the future. In January 2007, the GOP Steering Committee will gather to hand out gavels for at least 11 full panels.

Six-year term limits for committee chairmen were first implemented in 1995. In 2001, a record 14 committees changed hands. Three of those panels — Armed Services, Energy and Commerce, and Resources — have already inaugurated new chairmen since then, but the remaining 11 will be up for grabs.

The list of gavels in play will include such plums as the Ways and Means Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

While all Members publicly vow that they are focused simply on retaining the majority, several Members are already positioning themselves for that selection process.

Here is a brief look at how GOP lawmakers and aides see the state of play for each of those 11 panels:

Budget

Current Chairman Jim Nussle (Iowa) is set to yield the gavel at the end of 2006, but the race to succeed him has yet to yield a frontrunner.

Moderate Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) is the current vice chairman, and he worked to repair ties to the GOP leadership after his advocacy of campaign finance reform. However, Shays may have hurt his chances for the post earlier this year by being one of just 10 Republicans to vote against the fiscal 2005 budget.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), who is third on the committee roster, has also irritated the leadership this year by demanding a vote on budget-process reform.

Other viable candidates are Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry and Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), though it is not clear whether Portman, who’s frequently cited as a contender for other lofty jobs, would want the position.

Education and the Workforce

For Rep. Tom Petri (Wis.), the current vice chairman, history could repeat itself in 2007.

In 2001, Petri was passed over for the chairmanship in favor of the less-senior Rep. John Boehner (Ohio). While Petri will presumably be a candidate again next time around, his seniority alone will not guarantee that he will be successful.

With Rep. Cass Ballenger (N.C.) retiring and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) taking over the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.) is well-positioned to make a run. He is well-regarded and is credited with being an active member of the committee.

Financial Services

The start of the 110th Congress will mark the first time this committee officially changes hands since it was created in 2001.

The panel, a combination of the old Banking and Financial Services Committee and parts of the Energy and Commerce Committee, was formed to create a perch for Rep. Mike Oxley (Ohio) after losing a battle with Rep. Billy Tauzin (La.) to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Richard Baker (La.) made a run for the post in 2001 and has been biding his time since, running a key subcommittee and waiting for another chance at the full panel’s gavel.

Other potential candidates include Rep. Sue Kelly (N.Y.), the current vice chairwoman, and Rep. Bob Ney (Ohio), who will be vacating his post atop the House Administration Committee.

House Administration

Ney hopes that his current committee gavel will lead to bigger and better things, just as his predecessor, Rep. Bill Thomas (Calif.), went on to helm the Ways and Means Committee. So while the committee’s work may seem tedious, the chairmanship does provide a way to curry favor with both the leadership and with rank-and-file Members.

Republican aides said there was no obvious frontrunner yet to take over the committee in 2007. Reps. Vernon Ehlers (Mich.) and John Mica (Fla.) are both vocal panel veterans.

The roster also includes Rep. John Linder (Ga.), who is running to take over the Rules Committee in 2005, as well as GOP Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

International Relations

Just as the House Administration race is wide open, so too is the contest to succeed International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (Ill.).

The upper echelons of the panel’s roster are stocked with Members who have had somewhat rocky relations with the Republican leadership. Those lawmakers — who span the party’s right and left wings — include Reps. Jim Leach (Iowa), Chris Smith (N.J.), Dan Burton (Ind.) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.).

Beyond them, the senior-most committee member who could mount a credible gavel campaign is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), a Member who is closely identified with Cuba issues but who has also broadened her portfolio by chairing the subcommittee on the Middle East and Africa.

Judiciary

The outlook is only slightly clearer on the Judiciary Committee.

The panel’s third-ranking member — behind current Chairman James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and former Chairman Henry Hyde (Ill.) — is Rep. Howard Coble (N.C.). But Coble has attracted attention in recent years by making controversial remarks that were construed by some critics as racially insensitive.

If Coble is bypassed, the job could fall to Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), who has amassed a solidly conservative voting record and could benefit from sharing a home state with Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio) has also been an active panel member and has worked on some high-profile issues as chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution.

Science

If he doesn’t win the Judiciary gavel, Smith could also make a play for the Science Committee chairmanship.

Smith is now second on Science behind Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.). He is followed by Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.), who has previously tried and failed to take over Armed Services, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.).

Though he ranks well down the seniority list, Gutknecht is now vice chairman. It is unclear whether his budgetary stubbornness could also affect a bid for the Science gavel.

Small Business

The second time could be the charm here for Kelly, who was an unexpected loser to Rep. Don Manzullo (Ill.) in the 2001 gavel race.

Manzullo may have benefited in that contest from the fact that Speaker Dennis Hastert had already snubbed one fellow Illinoisian, Rep. Phil Crane, in the race for the Ways and Means chairmanship and did not want to dash the hopes of another home-state colleague.

In any case, Kelly was seen as a strong candidate then and could be again if she tosses her hat in the ring. If she were to win, the New Yorker could be the only woman to chair a full committee.

One slot above Kelly on the panel’s roster is Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), the current vice chairman. The list below them includes Chabot and Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.).

Transportation and Infrastructure

This committee will offer one of the most-prized gavels of the cycle, although its value could rise or fall depending on when the highway bill — which is currently the subject of a stalemate — is once again up for reauthorization.

As with Education and the Workforce, Petri is second on the roster and also serves as vice chairman behind Chairman Don Young (Alaska). Young frustrated his own leadership when he initially proposed a $375 billion highway bill with a gas tax increase to pay for it. It is possible that Petri will be too closely identified with that effort to succeed the Alaskan.

Below Petri, Reps. John Duncan (Tenn.) and John Mica (Fla.) have both made their interest in the Transportation gavel known. Boehlert could also be a candidate, though he might need to assuage the fears of conservatives that he is too moderate to get such a plum job.

Veterans’ Affairs

This committee could be off the table by 2007. Current Chairman Chris Smith (N.J.) won’t be term-limited out until then, but his repeated calls for more spending on veterans has so angered Republican leaders that they may decide to take back his gavel two years early.

In either scenario, Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer is viewed as the strong frontrunner to take over. Buyer is a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War and is the rare fiscal conservative who maintains credibility with most aggressive veterans’ groups.

The committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Mike Bilirakis of Florida, lost the race to Smith in 2001, and there is a strong likelihood that he will retire before the gavel would open up again.

Ways and Means

As the only top-tier committee scheduled for a vacancy in 2007, Ways and Means could be the scene of the most heated gavel fight. Thomas and Crane waged a memorably heated battle for the post in 2001.

Early clues to the race emerged last spring, when Rep. Jim McCrery (La.) openly pondered retiring and Republican leaders let it be known privately that they viewed him as a strong candidate to succeed Thomas.

McCrery is seen as being adept at both policy and politics, helping to craft key legislation while raising significant amounts of money for the party.

However, the fact that he is seventh on the panel’s seniority list means that his elevation to chairman would not be a sure thing. Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Clay Shaw (Fla.) both have more seniority and could mount credible candidacies.

The list of notable Members below McCrery includes Nussle, Portman and Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), though the expertise higher on the list makes it unlikely that the leadership would dip so far down to find its next chairman.