Settling an important intramural dispute, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other Republican leaders have decided that committee chairmen, who must relinquish their posts in the next Congress under current party rules, may exchange positions with one another.

The decision, which was made quietly last week and first reported in the newspaper Roll Call, means that some of the Hill's most senior lawmakers could continue to wield considerable influence in the next century.

When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, reform-minded members imposed six-year term limits on both committee chairmen and the speaker, and many lawmakers expected that chairmen would return to rank-and-file status once their tenure ended in 2000. Under Hastert's ruling, however, chairmen will be allowed to use their seniority to take over another panel or assume control of an influential subcommittee on the panel they currently control.

While two chairmen have already announced their intention to retire next year -- Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) -- the decision paves the way for Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) to hold key posts on the their current panels.

Shuster intends to chair the influential ground transportation subcommittee, according to an aide, while sources said Bliley is likely to take the helm of the telecommunications subcommittee.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery said top leaders were simply offering a "clarification" of an existing rule. "This should come as no surprise," Feehery said.

House Republican Conference Vice Chair Tillie Fowler (Fla.) said the rule will keep experienced members on board while preventing the creation of the kind of fiefdoms that flourished under the Democrats.

"I don't think the intention was to have everybody new," Fowler said. "We'll never have a [former Democratic Ways and Means Committee Chairman] Dan Rostenkowski on our side of the aisle."

But Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) predicted the ruling could "create some dissatisfaction" among lawmakers hoping to move up in the GOP's ranks. "A chairman wants to be in charge," King said. "When you have a former chairman sitting there as chair of a powerful subcommittee, it's certainly taking away some power."