GOP fight for energy gavel mars otherwise seamless transition

An acrimonious fight for the gavel of one of the House’s most powerful panels has marred an otherwise seamless transition for Republicans taking power.

Republicans are jockeying fiercely for position in a race to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee — a battle that, at times, has resembled a GOP primary where candidates run to the right.

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The stakes are high. Whoever holds the chairmanship will immediately become one of the driving forces behind the GOP’s push to “repeal and replace” the sweeping healthcare overhaul. 

The panel is also ground zero for debates on climate change, telecommunications and the future of the Internet, and the top Republican will have to spar with Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the Democratic chairman who will become the committee’s ranking member.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has positioned himself as the favorite in large part because Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the current ranking Republican, needs a waiver from GOP rules to continue leading a committee on which he has served as chairman and ranking member.

 But Upton’s conservative credentials have come under challenge from Rush Limbaugh and other critics on the right, leaving a door open for Barton as well as Reps. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). Upton has spent the weeks since the midterm elections proving his conservative bona fides, promising to crack down on spending and prevent federal funds from paying for abortions. 

Some Republicans have openly questioned if the fight could hurt their party. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a member of the committee who supports Barton’s bid, said the struggle was “painful to watch” and called on GOP leaders to intervene.

Some observers say the real power, at least on healthcare, will remain behind the scenes in leadership offices no matter who gets the gavel.

 “They all have the same directives from the Republican leadership and the caucus,” one Republican lobbyist told The Hill.

The committee, for the most part, “won’t be drafting their own legislation or formulating actual policy” as long as Democrats control the Senate, the lobbyist said. “In that sense, it’s a lot about the show — who’s the most eloquent.”

The new chairman will need to show he can handle Waxman, a legislative heavyweight with a long history of working the national and Beltway media on a range of issues. Waxman’s knowledge of the intricacies of health policy outstrips that of any of the Republican contenders, and the job of going head to head with him could be delegated to Burgess or Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), both of whom are physicians.

The House GOP steering committee will listen to candidate presentations the week of Nov. 29 and then vote. Sources told The Hill that Barton’s request for a waiver would likely be considered at the same time. Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) will have the biggest say among House GOP leaders over who gets the position.

Barton served a term as chairman before serving two terms as ranking member. A spokesman for Boehner has repeatedly said that time served as ranking member counts toward the term limit.

Barton has his share of supporters, including Stearns, Shimkus and Burgess, but the engineer and former natural-gas consultant rankled leadership this summer when he apologized to BP for what he dubbed the White House’s “$20 billion shakedown” of the company during the Gulf oil spill. The company set the money aside to compensate victims of the disaster. 

Barton eventually recanted the statement after Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) reportedly threatened to strip him of his committee post. 

Barton’s outspoken campaign to extend his tenure has also rubbed some Republicans the wrong way, especially after reports emerged of his camp using opposition research to impugn Upton’s conservative credentials. Barton strongly denied those allegations in an interview with The Hill. 

Barton also wrote to incoming freshman lawmakers as well as the entire GOP conference to seek their support in his bid for the gavel, even though the decision lies with the steering committee alone. Still, Barton has been called the “House GOP’s leading expert on energy policy” by The Wall Street Journal and is viewed as a staunch ally of traditional conservative interests.

Upton’s candidacy, meanwhile, has gathered steam in recent months thanks to his prowess as a fundraiser; he raised over $2 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) this cycle and co-chaired a March dinner that brought in a record $7.2 million. If chosen to lead Energy and Commerce, he has said he would move his agenda in bite-size pieces, rather than attempting to pass sweeping, 1,000-page bills.

But conservative groups question whether Upton is the right candidate. The American Conservative Union scored Upton’s votes in the current Congress at a 72 on its scale of 1 to 100, with higher scores representing more-conservative positions. Shimkus and Barton, in contrast, rated 92 and 96, respectively. 

Anti-abortion-rights groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and Susan B. Anthony List have argued Upton’s mixed voting record on abortion should prevent him from chairing the committee. The National Right to Life Committee faulted Upton for voting in favor of allowing embryonic stem cell research. 

On energy, Upton has been plagued by his support, in 2007, for energy-efficiency standards that effectively banned the use of incandescent light bulbs. Limbaugh argued it would be a “tone-deaf disaster” for Upton to get the gavel. 

Should the GOP leadership deny the post to both Barton and Upton, Shimkus could prove an attractive alternative. While his spokesman said he would only enter the race if Barton does not receive a waiver, at this point it appears the distinction is moot.

A career military officer who has served on all five of the panel’s subcommittees and as ranking member on three, Shimkus is currently the ranking member on the prominent Health subcommittee. He has called himself the only “fossil fuel” candidate for the post, aside from Barton, and strongly supports tapping the nation’s coal and oil reserves to boost domestic energy production.

Stearns has had to push back against his reputation as a poor fundraiser in recent months, with Boehner going so far as to poke him over his perceived stinginess at a recent fundraiser where Stearns presented him with a check for $300,000. Despite another contribution of the same amount later in the cycle, he remains behind Upton and Barton but well ahead of Shimkus in NRCC contributions.

Julian Pecquet, Ben Geman, 
Sara Jerome and Darren Goode contributed reporting.

This story was posted at 4:20 p.m. and updated at 7:10 p.m.