Coveted House gavel now up for grabs

Defense industry officials say a three-way race could emerge to succeed Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) as chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee.

Two sources close to McKeon said the chairman will announce his retirement at the end of 2014 on Thursday, which will create a vacancy at the top of the House panel overseeing military policy and the Pentagon budget.

Defense sources say Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising GOP chairman blames Democrats for defense budget holdup MORE (R-Texas) is seen by the defense industry as the front-runner to take over the committee in 2015.

Two other senior committee members, Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio), are also expected to consider seeking the chairmanship.

But Thornberry, the panel’s vice chairman, is McKeon’s choice to succeed him, according to defense sources.

“Thornberry does all the right things. He does what he needs to for the party; he’s well thought of on the committee; and Buck wants him to be his heir apparent,” said one defense lobbyist. “There's no reason to pass him over.”

McKeon, of course, will not have a direct vote to decide who replaces him, as House GOP leadership would ultimately make that decision, as long as Republicans maintain control of the House in 2015.

McKeon’s retirement marks a complete turnover in the four defense committee chairs between 2013 and 2015.

Both McKeon and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are retiring at the end of this term.

The Appropriations Defense subcommittee chairmen, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), took over the panels in 2013, following the deaths of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) in December 2012 and Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) last year.

Durbin and Frelinghuysen are expected to remain in their posts, as long as the chambers do not change hands in the midterm elections, while Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) is Levin’s likely successor at the top of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

— Cameron Joseph contributed.