Barton claims significant support in chairman's race

Extolling his conservative voting record, Barton's proponents began circulating a letter on Wednesday supporting his bid for the gavel.

"You know Joe," the letter says, addressing GOP members. "He has provided unyielding conservative leadership during our protracted partisan battles over cap-and-trade and health care reform."

The letter also says Barton played a key role in halting a Democratic effort to create net-neutrality regulations for broadband lines. 

Signatories include Reps. Ralph Hall (Texas), Cliff Stearns (Fla.), John Shimkus (Ill.), Joe Pitts (Pa.), Lee Terry (Neb.), Michael Burgess, (Texas), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), and Steve Scalise (La.).

The competition for the Energy and Commerce gavel has heated up since the election as Barton's camp works to paint his main competitor, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), as too moderate for the job.

A term limit rule could prevent Barton from winning the role if Republicans do not change party rules or allow a waiver from them.

Shimkus and Stearns have each tossed their hat in the ring if Barton is disqualified from the running, banking on the possibility that they could be viewed as more reliably conservative than the frontrunner Upton.

The conventional wisdom this week is that Barton seems unlikely to obtain a waiver. His aggressive bid for the gavel and his alleged work to undermine Republican competitors has complicated his already tense relationship with the leadership, according to industry sources.

Also working against the odds: Barton's remarks earlier this year that were perceived as an apology to BP after the oil spill. His comments created a public relations debacle for his party.

It is not clear that currying favor with committee Republicans will be a considerable asset to Barton's candidacy. The general conference does not decide on the waiver.

Even if Barton receives a waiver, only members of the GOP steering committee vote on the chairmanship. GOP Leader John Boehner's vote is weighted more heavily than others.

Leadership also has to decide whether to hand a waiver to House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) to remain the GOP's top member on that committee.

If party leaders decide they want a new top appropriator, it might be more politically feasible for them to grant no waivers at all, rather than one that singularly helps Barton, industry sources said this week.