House GOP leaders could face complex committee shuffle

At a retreat in southern Maryland last December with the elected leaders of the House, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) was uncertain whether Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) would remain as chairman of the Rules Committee and she stood up to ask if he would be reappointed.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) responded that Dreier would remain as chairman. And at the start of the 109th Congress, he changed House rules so that term limits, which apply to every standing and select House committee, would not apply to the Rules Committee chairman.

But Pryce’s question and her subsequent departure from the rules panel led to speculation that she was gunning to chair the House Financial Services Committee in the next Congress. With word out that she might have ambitions other than serving as conference chairwoman, Reps. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and John Doolittle (R-Calif.) started lining up support to challenge Pryce, who moved earlier this month to dampen speculation by announcing that she would seek reelection in her current job.

House leaders, assuming that they keep their majority and that the current leadership structure remains in place, will face a big test at the end of the 109th Congress when nine committee chairmen will have to relinquish their gavels.

Reps. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), John Boehner (R-Ohio), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Don Young (R-Alaska) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) will have served a maximum three terms as chairmen at the end of this Congress. There will be three additional openings next year because Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) is running for governor, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) is retiring and Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) has been nominated as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and is expected to leave this year.

A 10th chairman could be leaving. Even though Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, serves at the Speaker’s pleasure, the three-term limit still applies to him.

When the Republicans took control of the House in 1995, one of the biggest reforms they imposed was a three-term limit for committee chairmen. This the second major test of term limits’ effects since 1995; the last time there was such extensive turnover was in 2000, when senior GOP heavyweights, such as Thomas and ex-Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) on Ways and Means and Oxley and ex-Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) on Energy and Commerce battled to chair their respective committees.

“It’s a play in motion that won’t sort itself out until after the elections,” a senior House Republican aide said. “If they’re worrying about chairing a committee now instead of worrying about [maintaining the majority], they won’t be chairman of anything.”

Besides having to figure out what to do with those 10 chairmen, a politically delicate challenge exists at the Rules Committee. By changing the rules, Hastert avoided setting a precedent of giving Dreier a waiver to serve a fourth term. If Hastert had granted a waiver to Dreier, the action might have prompted other aggressive chairmen to seek a waiver as well.

Even if Hastert remains as Speaker in the 110th Congress and reappoints Dreier, there remains the vexing question of what to do with seven committee chairmen, assuming they don’t lose their seats or retire. In the past, some chairmen have gone on to to chair key subcommittees. But term limits have led others, such as former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Tom Bliley (R-Va.), to retire.

A positive development to come from the impending committee-chairmen shuffle for the House GOP is an increase in fundraising as future chairmen seek to impress members of the House Steering Committee — the panel that decides who will head up committees, several GOP aides said.

Candidates for chairmanships will have to seek support from younger lawmakers who were often ignored by their more senior colleagues before term limits were imposed, the top GOP aide said.

Those angling to become chairmen are using several tactics. The obvious is fundraising. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), in her bid to chair the House International Relations Committee, has started a leadership PAC and has stepped up giving to other lawmakers, and she has been encouraging the Bush administration to take an aggressive posture with Iran and Syria.

But fundraising has its limits for subcommittee chairmen. A prominent lobbying firm had trouble putting together a $15,000 fundraiser for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property and the Internet, who has let it be known that he wants to become chairman, according to a lobbyist familiar with the event.

Some lawmakers, Smith included, have hired well-respected staffers to help guide them on the politics of policy issues. Smith tapped Joseph Gibson, who had been a lawyer for the full committee, as his chief of staff. Dreier named Hugh Halpern, a former aide at the Financial Services Committee, as his new staff director. That gives them two years to get to know each other and provides Dreier, who has not served at Financial Services in several years, with an adviser to help him segue back into the financial world.

Finally, there’s the question of what to do about potential openings this year. When Cox steps down as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, House leaders will have to find a replacement for the remainder of this Congress. Young, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has indicated his interest in taking the reins at Homeland Security, as has Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who is in his seventh term.

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