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Increasingly powerful GOP congressman from Maryland still cutting his own path

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:22 PM

Since Republicans captured control of the House in November, most GOP lawmakers have been plotting how to use their newfound power.

As usual, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) doesn't see things quite the same way as most of his colleagues.

"The three committees I serve on are the three least political committees in the Congress," Bartlett said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "So I have a little different perspective than the average member."

Indeed, Bartlett's assignments - on the Armed Services, Science and Small Business committees - are relatively less partisan than some others in the House. But the Republican takeover yielded dividends for the 18-year congressional veteran, whose seniority puts him in key positions on all three panels.

Bartlett's posts put him at the fulcrum of two key debates in the 112th Congress - on climate change and on the future size and shape of the U.S. military.

Unlike many fellow Republicans, Bartlett sees an urgent need to respond to climate change by using less oil and more renewable energy.

And unlike most lawmakers on the Armed Services panel, Bartlett has very little military presence in his district, which stretches across the northern part of Maryland from the Susquehanna River to the West Virginia border. So he is relatively unconcerned with keeping bases open and contracting dollars flowing back home.

"Some people look at things straight on," said Armed Services Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.). "He kind of comes at things from different angles."

The Seventh-day Adventist and father of 10 is a trained scientist, a former teacher and business owner and a current goat farmer.

Bartlett, 84, has a PhD in human physiology and holds several patents on respiratory equipment used by pilots and firefighters, among others. He worked for two decades as a scientist for the military and NASA and also owned a home-building company.

He got into politics relatively late in life. He was elected to the House in 1992 at age 66, having lost one previous race for the same seat a decade earlier.

Bartlett has since been reelected with ease, representing a district that comprises some of the most conservative territory in Democratic-leaning Maryland.

Bartlett is one of just two Republicans in Maryland's eight-member House delegation. In the last Congress, he was the lone GOP lawmaker, but Rep. Andrew Harris recaptured the 1st district for Republicans in November.

"He does stand out," Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said of Bartlett. "Until the arrival of Andy Harris, he was clearly the most conservative member of the delegation."

Bartlett said he works well with Maryland's Democrats, even if they don't always see eye-to-eye.

"We have Team Maryland, and our roles on Team Maryland are very different," Bartlett said. "I can't vote for these spending bills, and my Democrat colleagues know I can't vote for these spending bills. . . . But once they've decided to spend the money, then I work as hard, maybe even harder than them, to see if I can get it all for Maryland."

Harris, who ousted freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) in a hard-fought campaign, was once the GOP whip in the state Senate, and he developed a reputation in Annapolis as a partisan warrior. Bartlett said he has talked to Harris about the need for the state's congressional delegation to work together.

"He's not the whip now," Bartlett said. "He needs to be a part of Team Maryland. . . . Andy understands that."

Bridging the divide

Bartlett is conservative on most issues, with a civil libertarian streak. He opposes abortion rights but has also sought to work with both scientific groups and antiabortion groups to reach a compromise on funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Similarly, Bartlett has tried to bridge the divide in the contentious Capitol Hill debate over climate change.

Bartlett supports alternative energy programs and as a member of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus is concerned that the world is too reliant on fossil fuels. Over the years he has given dozens of speeches on the topic on the House floor, usually before an empty chamber.

That stance puts him at odds with much of his party, including his fellow senior members of the Science Committee.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), chairman of the science panel, is a staunch ally of the oil industry and a vocal proponent of increased drilling. The No. 2 Republican on the committee roster, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), is a prominent climate-change skeptic.

Bartlett has encouraged his fellow Republicans to spend less time questioning the science behind climate change and more time preparing for its effects, which he sees as a potential threat to America's national security. That has earned Bartlett respect from some unusual quarters.

"When it comes to knowledge about climate science, Ralph Hall and Jim Sensenbrenner make Roscoe Bartlett look like Albert Einstein," said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Yet, Bartlett isn't in full agreement with environmentalists such as Weiss. Asked whether he believes humans are causing climate change, Bartlett said, "I don't have a dog in that fight," and that it's an "interesting" but "irrelevant" question because he thinks we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels anyway.

A big-picture focus

On the Armed Services panel, Bartlett is now chairman of the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces.

Officially, the subcommittee "conducts oversight of ammunition programs, Army and Air Force acquisition programs, all Navy and Marine Corps aviation programs, and National Guard and Army and Air Force National Guard and Reserve." It also oversees procurement and research and development programs.

Most other members of Armed Services represent significant military bases and populations. But Bartlett's district is host only to Fort Detrick in Frederick and home to few federal contractors.

Previously, when Bartlett took the chairmanship of a subcommittee that covers the Navy, some colleagues were surprised, given that there is no Navy presence in his landlocked district.

"That's the reason I want it," Bartlett said he told them. "Now I can look at what's good for my country without being conflicted about what's good for my district."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has proposed slashing tens of billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget because of the ballooning federal debt, a plan that makes some Republicans uneasy. Bartlett thinks everything should be on the table.

"You don't have to be very good at arithmetic to figure out that if we cut totally everything else that we did except entitlements and defense . . . we still wouldn't balance the budget," he said.

Even on defense, Bartlett has a preoccupation shared by few others. He has spent years warning of the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack - an explosion high in the atmosphere that could cripple the U.S. electric grid.

"I'm glad he keeps pushing that," McKeon said. "He's kind of like the voice in the wilderness on it, but it's important."

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