If Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to take the gavel of the House Ways and Means Committee come 2015, he'll have to leapfrog a more senior colleague who is said to have his eyes on the chairmanship, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas).
But Brady, who currently holds the No. 3 GOP spot on the panel, has also positioned himself to move up, and the affable conservative is popular with fellow Republicans and seen as a good soldier for the party.
First elected in 1996, Brady has been in the House two years longer than Ryan and leads both the Ways and Means subcommittee on Health and the Joint Economic Committee, a bicameral panel.
But unlike Democrats, Republicans in the House often bypass the seniority system in picking committee chairmen, and both Brady and Ryan got their coveted spot on Ways and Means in 2001.
It has long been an open secret in Washington that Ryan’s wanted to lead the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a spot that would give him great influence over the fiscal issues on which he’s made a career.
Already the party’s most respected voice on those matters, Ryan gained celebrity status in the House GOP after Mitt Romney picked him to serve as his running mate in 2012.
He was the only senior Republican to gain a rare waiver of the three-term limit for committee leaders after the November election, and is now serving his fourth term as the top GOP member of the Budget Committee.
In interviews, a range of Republican lawmakers, senior aides and lobbyists said Ryan remained the heavy favorite to win the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship in 2015, even if the panel’s well-liked current chief, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), sought his own waiver for a fourth term.
“The view is that Ryan will be anointed,” said one lobbyist.
A Republican on the committee added that Ryan was in good shape to take the top spot, while hastening to add that the final decision will come down to a GOP steering committee where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hold serious sway.
“Paul’s in a very good position. He’s senior on the committee — obviously high-profile — understands the politics and the policy,” the GOP lawmaker said. “He’d be a very strong candidate. But if Brady contested it, he’d be strong, too.”
Brady’s best chance to lead the panel could come if Ryan decides to make a bid for Speaker or another leadership post, or if he decides to devote his energy to a presidential bid in 2016.
If Ryan bowed out, other contenders could also push for the gavel, including Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close ally of Boehner. Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), the current No. 2 Republican in seniority on the committee, is 82 and not seen as a serious player for the top position.
Adding another wrinkle to the sweepstakes, Camp said last week he is considering a run for Senate in 2014, but also hinted that he would be interested in staying on as Ways and Means Committee chairman.
“Obviously, that would certainly be something I'd put in the mix,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.
Ryan’s office declined to comment for this story. “Chairman Ryan is focused on his work at the Budget Committee,” spokesman William Allison said.
Brady, on the other hand, called the questions entirely premature. “I am focused on helping Chairman Camp reform this broken tax code,” he told The Hill.
Of course, with the next Congress still 17 months away, there are still plenty of variables that could influence who the next Ways and Means Committee chairman is — including the seemingly long-shot possibility that Democrats retake the House in 2014.
Ryan, for instance, is also under pressure from top Republican donors to set his sights higher than the Ways and Means Committee, whether it be a presidential run or a top spot in House leadership.
The Wisconsin Republican has been more vocally prodding his House GOP colleagues to find a solution on immigration, leaving some on K Street wondering if Ryan’s national ambitions may be greater than they first thought.
"He really hasn't decided," said an informal adviser who talks frequently to Ryan and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
K Street and Capitol Hill officials are adding to the speculation by saying that Camp could have a greater case for a waiver if leadership felt that a deal on tax reform, the overriding goal of the Michigan Republican’s chairmanship, was imminent.
Meanwhile, Brady has now been chairman of two separate Ways and Means subcommittees, having headed the Trade panel before switching to Health this year – giving him leadership experience over two major parts of the committee jurisdiction.
But the Texas Republican, who has long been seen as having his eyes on the Ways and Means Committee gavel, could also have an Achilles heel in his quest – his fundraising chops.
A lawmaker’s ability to contribute to his colleagues’ campaigns can help their own bid for committee leadership, and Ways and Means Committee members can attract a broad range of donors.
But in recent years, both Camp and Ryan have had far more success padding their accounts than Brady, who sits in a safe Houston-area seat.
Brady has accelerated his fundraising so far this year, but still runs far behind Tiberi and even other much more junior members on the committee.
Still, at least one lobbyist cautioned not to count Brady out yet.
“I think it’s fair to think that Ryan has the greatest influence here. That doesn’t mean he necessarily controls the outcome,” the K Street source said.
“Kevin Brady is a very well-liked member. And that is not an irrelevant consideration,” the lobbyist added. “If Boehner decides to go past him and go to Ryan, it won’t be an easy decision.”