Vets fight to save Rep. Chris Smith from Hastert's ax

Worried that House Republican leaders are poised to oust Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a wide array of veterans groups is warning that such a move would send the wrong signal to U.S. troops abroad.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) is the leading candidate to take Smith’s gavel. If GOP leaders appoint Buyer, a loyal supporter of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), it would signal clearly to the Republican caucus that rebels will be punished.
Worried that House Republican leaders are poised to oust Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a wide array of veterans groups is warning that such a move would send the wrong signal to U.S. troops abroad.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) is the leading candidate to take Smith’s gavel. If GOP leaders appoint Buyer, a loyal supporter of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), it would signal clearly to the Republican caucus that rebels will be punished.
erika lusk
Rep. Chris Smith has spoken out for funding of veterans programs.

Smith has been outspoken on veterans funding. He has two more years remaining on the Republicans’ self-imposed term limits for committee chairs, but veterans groups fear he will not finish his term.

Sources said Smith’s chairmanship is to be challenged as the Republican Steering Committee today weighs which lawmakers will chair committees in the 109th Congress.

Dennis Cullinan, national legislative service director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), said it would be an “absolute disaster” that “such an effective chairman would be removed for political reasons.”

He said it would send the wrong message to U.S. troops, adding, “We’re at war.”

Buyer ranks fourth in seniority on Veterans Affairs, behind Reps. Smith, Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Terry Everett (R-Ala.).

Over the past several years, loyalty to House GOP leaders has been viewed as more important than seniority in securing committee gavels. But removing Smith before his term is up would accentuate Hastert’s demand for loyalty.

In the 108th Congress, Smith was not known for consistently bucking House leaders.
He voted with them on budget issues and the Medicare drug bill but voted against them on drug reimportation legislation.

Hastert delegates much of his power to committee chairmen, so decisions on panel chairmanships are a top priority for him.

Veterans groups have showered Smith and Bilirakis with praise but are wary of Buyer. They fear that under his leadership veterans funding could be cut substantially in 2005, noting that the White House wants to scale back federal spending sharply this year.

While Smith has been outspoken against proposed cuts to veterans programs, sources with these organizations speculate that Buyer would do whatever leadership wants.

One source said Buyer “would toe the party line” and “is ideologically loyal” to leadership.

Leading veterans groups are standing firmly behind Smith. In a Jan. 3 letter to Hastert, 10 organizations, including the VFW, the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America, urged the GOP leader to make sure Smith remains at the helm.

Veterans yesterday hand-delivered letters of the support for Smith on Capitol Hill.
One read: “In our view, it would be a tragedy of Chris Smith left the chairmanship. … The unnecessary loss of his leadership, knowledge, skill, honesty, passion, and work ethic would be a deeply disturbing development not just to us, but to millions of veterans across the country whose lives he had touched.”

The organizations said they do not always agree with Smith but know he will “always give us a fair hearing and an honest assessment.” They called Smith “the foremost congressional expert and advocate on veterans’ issues” and praised the lawmaker for putting “principle over politics.”

Richard Fuller, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, another group that signed the letter to Hastert, said that if Smith lost the chairmanship it would be for political reasons and to “make an example” of him.

It would be “placing politics above principle,” Fuller said, adding that it “shouldn’t be about the party line. … It should be about what is best for veterans.”

While there had been rumors of a change in the committee’s leadership, the letters supporting Smith indicate the lawmaker’s imminent danger. Fuller said it is rare for the veterans groups to join forces on one issue.

He criticized the behind-closed-doors process of choosing chairmen, adding that the organizations’ letters were intended to make sure veterans were “part of the discussion.”

The veterans groups made it clear that by taking the gavel from Smith the GOP leadership would risk alienating not only the country’s powerful veterans organizations but also 26 million veterans and their families.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery did not comment for this article, saying it was a Steering Committee issue. Hastert has the most votes on the committee but can be outvoted by the rest of its members. Lawmakers said Hastert has his fingerprints on most, if not all, major decisions that the committee makes.

Smith and Buyer’s offices did not return calls seeking comment.