Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was picked by top Republicans yesterday to chair the influential House Appropriations Committee after a strenuous vetting process that required all three candidates to defend their fundraising abilities, voting records and commitment to spending restraint.
The 13-term Californian was selected over Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Harold Rogers (Ky.) during a closed meeting of the 28-member Republican Steering Committee, made up of GOP leaders, key committee chairmen and regional party representatives. The choice must still be ratified today at a meeting of all House Republicans, but that is considered a formality.
Lewis, 70, said his top priority would be to get spending bills passed "on time and under budget" -- perhaps as early as this spring -- to leave adequate time to "deal with the Senate." Last year, after delays that continued into December, nine of the 13 annual bills were rolled into a giant package in a secretive process that left dozens of lawmakers in the dark or miffed about the results.
Lewis replaces Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who is stepping down after a six-year term. In the Senate, Republicans this week tapped Thad Cochran (Miss.) to replace Ted Stevens (Alaska.) as Appropriations Committee chairman.
Yesterday's selection capped a long comeback for Lewis since conservative firebrands ousted him in 1992 from the GOP's number four leadership post, in part because he was seen as being too close to Democrats. His seniority on the appropriations panel gave him a second chance after the GOP took control of the House in 1995.
Serving as chairman of the space and veterans subcommittee, and more recently of defense appropriations, Lewis displayed a conservative fiscal streak, seeking first to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and then questioning Lockheed Martin Corp.'s costly F-22 fighter plane.
In the process, he won converts among younger fiscal conservatives while also drawing on the defense and electronics industries -- including Lockheed Martin -- to build campaign funds with which to help the party and other Republicans.
Although Regula had the backing of Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the House's fourth-ranking Republican, a pro-Lewis bloc that included such California powers as Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas worked for Lewis.
"I think the fact that this race went down to the wire shows the high caliber of the candidates," Pryce said. "While a Regula victory would have been great news for Ohio, Jerry Lewis is a very capable, thoughtful member."
Rogers said his "hat is off" to Lewis.
Lewis's selection appears to leave the traditionally independent Appropriations Committee safely under the sway of the House leadership. All three candidates, a GOP aide said, were required to "jump through hoops" to prove they would cooperate closely with the White House and the speaker's office to stave off spending pressures from colleagues in both parties.
In November 1998, then-Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) asserted in a letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that "I shall run the committee as I see fit and in the best interest of the Republican majority, with full consultation with the leadership but without being subject to the dictates of any other member of Congress."
Such assertions of a chairman's prerogatives are largely a thing of the past in the more centralized system controlled by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
"No matter which of these fellows was selected, this process marks a dramatic consolidation of power in the hands of a few key leadership types," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic chief of staff of the Appropriations Committee who is a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Hastert spokesman John Feehery disagreed with that, saying Hastert's approach with committee chairmen is "a light touch at the wheel."
In a separate battle, a Hastert protege, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), is attempting to oust Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) from the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Smith bucked GOP leaders on funding issues last year, but he has strong support among veterans groups. The steering committee was set to take up the matter last night or today.