Vulnerable legislators picked for highway conference panel

Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.), both in danger of losing their seats in 2006, are hoping to prop up their reelection prospects from their new perch on the highway-bill conference committee.
Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.), both in danger of losing their seats in 2006, are hoping to prop up their reelection prospects from their new perch on the highway-bill conference committee.
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Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.): Hoping to guard pet highway projects on the conference committee.

Simmons was one of 38 House Republicans named by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Barrow one of 25 House Democrats tapped by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) late last month to serve on the committee. Both represent swing districts in states that consistently back the other party’s presidential nominees. And both won seats on the conference committee that could have gone to more senior members in safer districts.

Simmons was dealt a devastating blow last month, when the Pentagon announced it wants to shutter the New London Submarine Base, in his 2nd District. The base closure would cost nearly 10,000 jobs and threaten local defense contractors.

Barrow, who won his first term last year with 52 percent of the vote, must run next year in a 12th District redrawn by Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature. There has been speculation among local Democrats that the congressman could face a primary.

Also serving on the conference committee are Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), who won his first term in 2004 with 52 percent, and Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.) and John Kline (Minn.), whose districts remain competitive.

Other committee assignments for the highway bill, littered with politically valuable highways and bridges, are likely to have implications in gubernatorial or Senate races across the country.

The House version of the transportation measure totals $284 billion, while the Senate’s costs $295 billion. The president has threatened to veto any bill exceeding the House version.

Simmons’s chief of staff, Todd Mitchell, said that simply having a seat on the committee doesn’t mean much to voters — “It’s a little bit inside baseball” — but that it should make it easier to funnel transportation dollars into the eastern Connecticut district.

“He most certainly can go and say, ‘This is what I’ve done, not only for my district but for the state,’” Mitchell said of Simmons. He added that “we have our own pet projects that were in the House bill, and he’s going to see that they remain.”

Simmons’s pet projects, Mitchell said, include $45 million “for a dozen or so projects” in his district. Chief among those is $16 million for a road connecting the town of Salem and Interstate 395.

Heather Janik, Reichert’s spokeswoman, said the congressman also has $45 million in budget items he’s hoping to secure. Those items, she said, would relieve traffic in and around Reichert’s 8th District, in the Seattle suburbs.

Janik was vague about how the congressman might capitalize politically on his transportation-related work. “We certainly hope that constituents would recognize it, keep it in mind,” Janik said.

Barrow’s chief of staff, Roman Levit, declined to comment on the congressman’s committee assignment. “This is not the time for politics,” Levit said. “This is the time to serve the 12th District of Georgia.”

But campaign aides from the last election cycle say there is no doubt that a seat on the conference committee pays political dividends.

One aide to Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), who sat on the committee last year, recalled that the campaign “talked about the congressman’s ability to secure transportation funding.”

Beauprez, now running for governor, is not on the conference committee this year. Neither are Reps. Pete Sessions and Randy Neugebauer, both Texas Republicans who served on the committee and ran against Democratic incumbents last year.

Committee assignments are likely to be felt in other races, too.

Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who was given a seat on the committee because he is chairman of the House Budget Committee, may get a boost in his campaign for governor of his home state. That could help blunt attacks from Democrats that Nussle has shepherded through budgets favoring the rich.

And Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), looking to succeed Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) should the senator win this year’s gubernatorial election, can use his committee seat to boost his support with voters outside his 13th District, in northern New Jersey.

Similarly, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), many Republicans’ No. 1 pick to challenge Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) next year, might use her seat to spread federal largesse around the state — much as Byrd has done for nearly a half-century.

The Senate appointed 30 conferees to the highway committee last month. Those included Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), facing a tough reelection in 2006, and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who might be challenged by Gov. John Hoeven (R).