Republican lawmakers compete to lead key House committees

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 9:34 PM

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) opened his pitch to be the next Appropriations Committee chairman with a video that showed a grossly obese Uncle Sam. That fella will be going on a big diet, Lewis declared.

Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who is seeking the Energy and Commerce gavel, went with a war theme, comparing GOP leaders to the Dwight Eisenhower-led Army of World War II. In his reenactment, Barton assigned himself the role of Gen. George Patton: "Put anything in my scope and I will shoot it," he declared.

They were among a number of eager House Republicans who spent Tuesday afternoon in a basement room in the Capitol Visitor Center trying to convince a select group of their colleagues to let them lead some of the most powerful committees in Congress.

Most chairmanships are a done deal, with the ranking Republican taking over from the outgoing Democrat. But several big ones are up for grabs, including Appropriations, which approves more than $1.1 trillion in spending, and Energy and Commerce, which oversees sectors that represent more than half of all U.S. industry.

The process, which is likely to culminate next week, will provide an early indication of how Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), the next House speaker, intends to manage a conference of at least 242 Republicans with divergent views on governing. His leadership team will either support more junior lawmakers in an effort to tap into tea party activism or side with veterans better versed in taking on a Democratic Senate and administration.

Some Republicans say that, no matter the outcome, the new chairmen have already been shaped by voter anger toward spending and deficits, embracing policy changes they had considered anathema as recently as a year ago.

"The process is determining who will live up to the commitments we made in the election," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), who, as the incoming majority leader, serves on the exclusive steering committee making the selections.

A new style

Boehner, a former committee leader himself, has vowed to reempower chairmen and undo the top-down style of the past 16 years, when both Democratic and Republican speakers hashed out decisions over the large wooden conference table in their second-floor suite.

The transfer of the House from Democratic to Republican control also highlights the differences between the parties and their use of term limits for chairmen. Democrats, who do not impose any limits, have seen their chairmen grow much older than the rank and file, creating a less energetic crop of power barons to challenge Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). On the 11 most important committees, every outgoing Democratic chairman is 65 or older more than 75 years old.

The Republicans, who impose a six-year limit on chairmen and ranking members, have a crop of incoming committee leaders who are, on average, 15 years younger than their Democratic predecessors.

Some of the potential chairmen, including Lewis and Barton, argued for term-limit waivers because they assumed their party's ranking spot in 2005 and would get to be chairman for only two years.

Whether they get the chairmanships they want or the waivers they seek will be up to the Republican steering committee, a group of nearly 30 that includes top leaders, other veterans and a trio from the 2010 freshman class. Boehner, whose decisions count as four votes, has stocked the panel with at least nine of his most loyal allies.

The battle lines are drawn along some ideological and regional lines. No chairmanship is trickier than that of Appropriations, where there doesn't appear to be a good option for conservative activists who consider the panel an enabler of government spending.

Earmarks at issue

The anti-earmark crowd wants to bump off Lewis, 76, who was once under an FBI probe for his proclivity in backing pet projects. (The case was dropped.) But next in line is Rep. Harold Rogers (Ky.), 72, who has an earmark record every bit as lengthy as Lewis's.

Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), 55, in committee seniority and an 18-year veteran, presented himself as a fresh face. Kingston enjoys the support of the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial board, but he, too, has a long history of backing earmarks.

"This isn't the time for business as usual," said Kingston, a member of the committee for 16 years. His PowerPoint presentation, "Changing the Culture," included a spending-cap proposal along the lines of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill, which set deficit-reduction targets.

All of the Appropriations candidates have pledged to abide by the earmark ban that Boehner and Cantor have pushed, and they have said they will add anti-earmark Republicans to the committee despite years of fighting those same lawmakers.

On the Energy and Commerce Committee, Barton's biggest hurdles to staying in power may be a longtime rivalry with Boehner and a general displeasure with him from other GOP leaders. They bristle at his communications style, which was epitomized over the summer during a hearing about the Gulf Coast oil spill in which Barton apologized to BP.

Passing over Barton would make Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), a moderate on social issues and a staunch conservative on energy policy, the front-runner, but he faces conservative challengers in Reps. John Shimkus (Ill.) and Cliff Stearns (Fla.).

The final domino is the Intelligence Committee, where regional dynamics could come into play. If Upton wins the energy gavel, the Texas delegation may be upset over Barton's rejection and could push for one of their own, Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry, to head Intelligence. But Mike Rogers (Mich.) is also angling for the spot, and he's got a much closer relationship with Boehner than Thornberry does, setting up another possible battle between the state delegations.

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