Kingston bid makes Appropriations race a tough call for Republican leaders

Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-Ga.) entry into the race for the House Appropriations Committee chairmanship raises tough questions for GOP leaders in the wide-open contest.

GOP aides say incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could wait to the last possible minute to weigh in with the GOP steering committee before candidates make presentations on Tuesday to that panel, which will choose the chairman of the appropriations committee.

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Whoever gets the nod will need to explain Republican spending cuts to the public, and the sales pitches of the three contenders could be the deciding factor.

Each of the three candidates running for the post have downsides for GOP leaders, making their decision all the more difficult.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) is pitching himself as “battle-ready” and tested, but given his long record as a pork-barrel spender his selection could enrage tea party-backed freshmen. They might be more likely to support Kingston.

Kingston is marking himself as the outsider candidate since he sponsored anti-earmark legislation in 2007, though his record is not earmark-free. Taxpayers for Common Sense says Kingston obtained $66 million in earmarks in fiscal 2010 compared to Rogers’ $93 million and $97 million for Lewis.

But the fact that Kingston is more of an outsider could be a problem for leaders, since he could be more difficult to control.

An appropriations chairman can win loyalty for the leadership by pressuring agency officials to fund pet projects under threat of reduced funding for other projects. Some observers believe Kingston could balk at such requests from leaders.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) also has a long track record of bringing home the bacon and he therefore has similar liabilities and strengths as Lewis. But the Kentucky Republican helped himself by announcing his support for the GOP earmark ban. In letters to colleagues he has pledged to open up the appropriations process to the wider membership.

But some supporters of the other candidates say Rogers has not performed well in front of the media and that could be a liability given the importance of explaining GOP spending positions to the public. In response to the criticism, Rogers has promised to prioritize media outreach in letters to colleagues touting his candidacy.

Lewis’s track record as a fundraiser for GOP lawmakers is a mark in his favor. It was seem as the deciding factor when Lewis fended off a 2004 chairmanship challenge from Rogers.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch said that Lewis will be calling in his chits before the Nov. 30 meeting, reminding members of past favors.

To win over hardcore budget cutters, Lewis sent a letter to President Obama last week vowing to sponsor legislation rescinding unspent stimulus money.

Thomas Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste agreed Lewis has his personal relationships on his side, but the fact the freshman class is historically large, about one-third of the total conference, will work in Kingston’s favor.

Freshman traditionally have the least interest in preserving strict seniority rights and Kingston ranks fifth among current Appropriations Committee Republicans, below third-ranked Rogers and ranking member Lewis.

The committee is also set to decide Tuesday whether Lewis should be granted a waiver from the party’s six-year term limit on service as the senior member on a committee.

If Lewis is not granted the waiver, he would be eliminated from the race.

Sources closely following the race said the GOP battle for the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee will be a factor for Lewis. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), like Lewis, is asking for a waiver so that he can be chairman of that committee.

If leadership denies Barton the waiver, it could make it difficult to grant one to Lewis.

Kingston has support from fiscal conservatives off Capitol Hill, though some of these supporters see his candidacy as a long shot. Still, they said Boehner and majority whip-designate Eric Cantor (Va.) may yet decide to go with him.

Budget watchdog groups are not making a major push for Kingston, who did not announced his candidacy for the chairmanship until Nov. 19. An earlier announcement could have allowed groups to do more on his behalf, one source said.

Kingston didn’t enter the race earlier because he had been waiting on a decision by leadership on whether Lewis would get a waiver, only to later be told that the steering committee would make the waiver decision at the same time they decide the chairmanship, according to a House aide.

Kingston is now in the race to give members an alternative to Rogers should Lewis be denied the waiver, the House aide said.