It wasn't long ago that the political pundits in Virginia's state Capitol would have been hard-pressed to name a handful of members of the Joint Commission on Health Care or the Virginia Housing Commission.

But after the Republican Party's civil war over taxes, everyone's watching carefully whom House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) appoints to dozens of study committees, some of them obscure.

The big question: Will Howell take revenge on Republican delegates who helped pass the state's largest tax increase in decades by yanking them off plum assignments? And will he do it despite having promised publicly that he would not exact retribution against those who voted for a tax compromise.

Some people say the purge has already begun.

Last month, Howell removed Del. G. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News) from the housing panel and Del. L. Preston Bryant Jr. (R-Lynchburg) from the health care panel. Last week, he took Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), a pharmacist, off the health care panel.

Jones and Bryant led a group of 17 Republican delegates who broke with Howell and other anti-tax conservatives to support a plan to increase taxes by more than $1.3 billion over two years. Oder, a member of the group, wrote an opinion piece in his local newspaper criticizing the GOP leadership.

In the meantime, Howell appears to be rewarding GOP members who stuck with him in the losing fight against higher taxes.

Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), one of the most outspoken anti-taxers in the House, was assigned to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a key post for a Northern Virginia lawmaker who wants to show he's doing something about traffic.

Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), chairman of the House Republican Caucus, was appointed to the health care commission. Landes was one of the leaders of the House GOP strategy to oppose higher taxes.

Oder, Bryant and Jones have declined to talk about Howell's decisions. And Howell, for his part, says he won't talk about specific delegates.

But his chief aide, G. Paul Nardo, said Howell is not exacting revenge. Rather, he's making decisions about appointments to dozens of commissions and advisory committees based on geographic balance, partisan representation, skills and expertise and a need to spread the wealth evenly among 100 delegates.

"I just don't see the retribution," Nardo said.

Pressed about the decisions on Bryant, Jones and Oder, Nardo acknowledged that Howell makes one other consideration when making appointments: "He is looking out for the best interests of the Republican caucus," Nardo said.

His actions may help to satisfy some of the more conservative members in the House, who have been urging Howell to take action against anyone who broke ranks. But those who supported the tax compromise are vocal as well.

In an open letter to Howell, a youth advocacy group called Virginia21 urged the speaker to avoid retribution and said punishing delegates who voted for the tax increases would be "tantamount to punishing Virginia's students and hardworking families." The letter included 1,600 signatures.

"Those legislators made a tough decision to put substance over sound bites to build a stronger, better Virginia," said Virginia21 Executive Director Jesse Ferguson.