King, Weldon make last-minute push

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the leading candidate to take the helm of the Homeland Security Committee, expressed confidence late yesterday that his candidacy will prevail when the GOP Steering Committee meets today to decide the race.

“If I were a betting man, I’d bet on me,” he said. “But I’ve been in politics long enough to know that I could be calling you Thursday morning having to explain what went wrong,” King told The Hill.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who is the current vice chairman of the panel, has campaigned hard for the gavel and continued to search for votes yesterday. He argued that he is the better choice because he has developed expertise and credibility on homeland-security issues.

“The leadership has to make a choice,” he said. “If the choice is based on what state you’re from, I can’t help that, or if it’s [based on] the credibility of issues, that is who I am and what I’m about.”

Weldon told The Hill that he promised Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that he “would not go out and run a race. I’m not running a geographical race.” He added that some of his colleagues, as well as Joe Allbaugh and James Lee Witt, former directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Presidents Bush and Clinton, encouraged him to run.

As a New Yorker who personally knew many victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, basic geography may be King’s biggest asset. Republican Reps. John McHugh and Tom Reynolds, both powerful upstate New Yorkers, are King’s biggest supporters on the Steering Committee, he said, and that can only boost his candidacy.

Other candidates for the post include Reps. John Linder (Ga.), Dan Lungren (Calif.) and Don Young (Alaska). Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas) has been mentioned as a candidate, but he has not returned calls to confirm his candidacy.

The 33-member steering panel will meet this afternoon in the Capitol’s basement to listen to the candidates’ 30-minute presentations. A vote is expected afterward.

Weldon holds a seat on the Steering Committee, representing the mid-Atlantic region. Another lawmaker of his choosing will vote in his place.

A senior House Republican aide said that a memorandum — first reported by The Hill and circulated yesterday — that highlighted King’s past criticism of the Republican Party would not hurt him. But any opposition within the GOP conference to his candidacy could hurt his ability to pass tough legislation on the committee and on the floor if he is chosen chairman.

“He has been much more supportive than most lately,” a GOP aide said of King.

Despite Weldon’s insistence that he’s running a low-key race, he spent yesterday continuing to explain to Steering Committee members how he would run the homeland-security panel. He also said he would circulate a classified memorandum at today’s meeting that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote for his top aides citing Weldon’s work on the threat of an electromagnetic-pulse bomb, which threatens computer networks.

Hurricane Katrina is also set to play a role in the decision. King said the first thing he would do as chairman is put together a field trip to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region; Weldon traveled to Louisiana on Sept. 2 to deliver relief supplies donated from private defense and medical companies.

Linder, chairman of the Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks Subcommittee, has met twice with the now-embattled Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff since he was appointed earlier this year, expressing support for the secretary, who since has lost face in the wake of the department’s widely panned response to Katrina.

“He is smart, he is tough and he is a great choice,” Linder said in the letter. “He is facing bureaucratic foot-dragging.”

“Katrina placed an exclamation point on that!” Linder wrote. “He needs our help.”

The Steering Committee’s decision could hinge on the lawmakers’ reputations from their work on foreign-policy issues in which both lawmakers bucked conventional wisdom and the establishment’s position.

But Weldon also has taken on the CIA and Pentagon. He wrote Countdown to Terror: The Top-Secret Information that Could Prevent the Next Terrorist Attack on America and How the CIA has Ignored It, which was published this year and ridiculed in some foreign-policy circles.

Weldon also has alleged that analysts working for a Pentagon program called “Able Danger” had identified Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers in 1999 but that Pentagon lawyers did not share the information with the FBI. The Pentagon has disputed the allegations.

Whatever the outcome in the contest for the Homeland Security chairmanship, Weldon is scheduled to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next week in which he said a witness will testify that he was ordered to destroy thousands of pages of computer data relating to Atta and that the person will state who gave him the order to destroy that information.

For his part, King, an Irish-American, has been intimately involved in the Northern Ireland peace process and was closely associated with the cause of Irish nationalism and the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) political arm, Sinn Fein. In 1986, he welcomed home a convicted IRA gunrunner who had been released from federal prison. King was an early and aggressive advocate of trying to persuade former President Bill Clinton to grant Gerry Adams, a Sinn Fein leader, entry into the United States. Clinton granted him a visa in 1994.

King said his involvement with the IRA is “something that could be easily taken out of context” and that his friends in Congress thought it is something he should think about as he ran for chairman. But King said nobody on the Steering Committee has raised it as an issue.

“I’ve been very instrumental to bringing about a peaceful resolution. …” he said “Whenever the IRA deviated, I was the first one to criticize them.”

“There are some people who are not happy with me,” he added, referring to his call in March for the former terrorist group to disband.

Roxana Tiron contributed to this report.

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