Speculation about Thomas's future intensifies after Boehner triumph


Rep. John Boehner’s rise to majority leader could have important implications for Rep. Bill Thomas’s political future, but what Thomas wants most and probably can’t attain is a waiver to stay on as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. John Boehner’s rise to majority leader could have important implications for Rep. Bill Thomas’s political future, but what Thomas wants most and probably can’t attain is a waiver to stay on as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Thomas (R-Calif.) is in the last year of a six-year term as chairman of the powerful panel, and it is unclear what he will do in 2007.

Many lobbyists and congressional officials have speculated about his next step and that chatter intensified after Boehner’s (R-Ohio) victory over Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). Thomas delivered Boehner’s nominating speech to the House Republican Conference and helped behind the scenes, securing votes for his eighth-term colleague.

Sources close to Thomas say he has several options, including heading the Budget Committee, joining President Bush’s Cabinet, chairing a Ways and Means subcommittee or retiring.

But, asked of the chances of a waiver for Thomas to retain his gavel, a Republican lawmaker last year said, “I’ve got a better chance to be pope.”

Ways and Means Republicans eager for a shot at the chair are not likely to make it easy for Thomas to stay. Rep. Clay Shaw (Fla.) is “actively seeking the chairmanship,” said his spokeswoman, Gail Gitcho. “The new majority leader’s election doesn’t change the fact that he is next in line to receive the gavel.”

Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), a close ally of Thomas and the front-runner to replace him, reiterated his intention to seek the Ways and Means gavel next year regardless of whether Thomas also pursues a waiver.

“I’m hoping and assuming that John Boehner will support me for the chairmanship of the committee because we’re very good friends and have a lot of respect for each others’ abilities,” McCrery told The Hill.

Still, McCrery dismissed speculation that majority leader hopefuls promised gavels to any lawmaker in exchange for votes or public support. “There was absolutely no word of that during the campaign,” McCrery said. “Those reports, to paraphrase Mark Twain, were greatly exaggerated.”

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), a long shot for the Ways and Means gavel, declined to comment.

But McCrery acknowledged both Johnson’s and Shaw’s intentions without referring to them directly: “There are other legitimate candidates for the position, and I expect them to seek it as well.”

Boehner could influence the Republican Steering Committee to give Thomas a powerful position in the conference.

One House Democratic aide agreed that Thomas’s strengthened alliance with Boehner raises his political standing and said the “calculating” Thomas has never made a move without it being part of a grander strategy.

McCrery, who employed a similarly effective strategy in committing to Boehner early but asking the Ohioan to keep him off public supporter lists, said Thomas talked with him about supporting Boehner early in the race but did not mention his decision to deliver the nominating speech until the day before the election.

Thomas has pointed out that exceptions have been made to conference rules, including limits on the term of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Bush has urged Hastert to stay on until the end of his second term, noting the legislative successes they have enjoyed together. Many of Bush’s most significant accomplishments, including tax cuts, trade and healthcare packages, have moved through Thomas’s committee.

Bush praised Thomas in a speech to the Latino Coalition last year, saying, “I have worked closely with Chairman Thomas on a lot of crucial issues. When he says he can get the job done, he means he can get the job done, and he has proven over the last five years that he can get the job done.”

The president’s appreciation should help him get the waiver, suggested Kevin McCarthy, who represents the Bakersfield area in the California Assembly and is Republican leader. McCarthy worked for Thomas for 15 years and ran his district office.

“If he has done so much … why wouldn’t you just finish out this administration with him at Ways and Means?” McCarthy asked.

But there is no indication that Bush has weighed in to urge for a waiver.

The filing deadline for party-affiliated candidates in California’s primary elections is March 10. Candidates can avoid a $1,621 fee by submitting the signatures of 3,000 registered voters by Feb. 23. The primary is June 6. So far, no one has filed to run in Thomas’s district.

Thomas enjoys strong support among Republicans in his district, McCarthy said. “Everybody wants the guy to run again,” he said.

McCarthy has been identified as Thomas’s heir apparent. “It gets mentioned a lot,” McCarthy said, “but no one’s thinking that day is near.”

Thomas’s backing for Boehner suggests he intends to stay in Congress, McCarthy said, “That is not the action of somebody that is planning to retire.”

If Thomas were to retire, few expect him to become a lobbyist; sources say he is more interested in the power of legislating than in money.

After Thomas secured hundreds of millions of dollars for his Bakersfield district in the 2005 transportation reauthorization bill, some on Capitol Hill figured the earmarks represented a sort of goodbye gift to the 14th-term lawmaker. Thomas, they noted, is not known for asking for lots of earmarks.

But people who know Thomas say he is as engaged as ever and doubt that he will retire. He turned 65 in December, which is young by Capitol Hill standards.

Thomas’s lips are characteristically sealed even about whether he plans to run for another term. He did not comment for this article.

Sources say he has not told his staff his plans. Still, Thomas has been gathering campaign cash. He had raised $832,770 through the end of 2005 and had $471,641 on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

He is also expected to be the main attraction at three fundraisers this month at the Capitol Hill Club.

The Budget Committee possibility is not seen as a good fit for Thomas, who is used to moving huge pieces of authorizing legislation, not nonbinding resolutions. Some conservatives, with the memory of the Medicare drug bill still on their minds, could be leery of Thomas’s views on spending.

While Thomas could easily head a Ways and Means subcommittee, it could be tough for him to work under another chairman. It could also be awkward for the lawmaker who replaces him.

Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) retired after his six-year run was over in 2000.

Another option for Thomas would be a leadership bid next year. Thomas has been a shrewd vote counter throughout his congressional career and has repeatedly cut deals — when he had to. But Thomas’s aggressive and sometimes abrasive behavior has not won him many friends in the House, and it is doubtful that he could win a leadership bid, especially because the ballots are cast secretly.

Elana Schor contributed to this report.