By Julian Hattem and Jeremy Herb - 03/28/14 12:24 PM EDT
Rep. Mike Rogers’s (R-Mich.) surprise retirement has put up for grabs a powerful job overseeing the country’s spy agencies.
The top slot on the secretive panel brings prestige and power, as its leaders are among the few members of Congress who are routinely briefed on classified information.
With Republicans expected to hold the House majority in the midterm elections, Rogers's retirement likely means there will be a new GOP chairman come January.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is the most senior member of the panel and next in line for the slot, but he confirmed on Friday that he will pass on the job to seek the House Armed Services Committee gavel once Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) retires at the end of the year.
“While chairing the House Intelligence Committee is an important job, my focus for the future is strictly on the House Armed Services Committee, where I hope to follow Buck McKeon as Chairman,” he said in a statement to The Hill.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who would be next in line after Thornberry — is emerging as the early favorite to replace Rogers, but other Republicans could throw their names into the mix in the coming days.
Another contender for the gavel is Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a seven-term congressman who has served on the committee since 2011.
Nunes told The Hill that he plans to seek the top spot on the committee after Rogers retires at the end of the year.
"This is something that came as a surprise to everybody so suddenly," Nunes said. "My plan always was after the chairman was finished that I would go for it. It just came a little sooner than what we thought."
Intelligence Committee leaders are appointed by the Speaker, so seniority could play a major role in the selection.
The panel, formally known as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, oversees intelligence activities of 17 different elements of the U.S. government.
The chairmanship sometimes comes with controversy, and the chairman is often the target of criticism from opponents of federal spy agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).
Defense sources have said that Miller would be the front-runner for the chairmanship, should he choose to seek it. A person close to Miller, who currently chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he is “definitely interested” in the post.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, could also be a contender for the chairmanship, although he has less seniority on the panel than Thornberry or Miller.
King told The Hill on Friday he would be interested in taking over the gavel next year.
“This is entirely a decision for the Speaker, and it’s certainly early on, but it would be an honor to be considered,” King said. “Intelligence, homeland security, that’s where I focus all of my time.”
King said he was taken by surprise at the news that Rogers was retiring.
“I had no idea at all,” he said.
Rogers’s announcement comes at a critical time in the fight over changes to the NSA. One analyst said his retirement could give him a freer hand to push proposals sought by President Obama.
“I do think Mr. Rogers found himself defending programs that became increasing unpopular,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“I also sense, looking at the shift in public opinion and the shift in the White House and the shift in Congress, that his view was increasingly in the minority, and I think it will have implications for necessary reforms of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] and the NSA programs.”
Both Rogers and the White House have urged the NSA to end its mass collection of records about people's phone calls. But Rogers has resisted one of Obama’s central proposals, which would require that the NSA or any other government agency obtain a court order before being able to search the phone records, except in specific emergency cases.
That requirement would make it too difficult for analysts to connect the dots between terrorists quickly, he has said, and “would give terrorists greater protections than those given to us citizens in criminal investigations every day in this country.”
Rogers and Intelligence Committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) have introduced legislation, which Miller and King both co-sponsored, to end the government’s collection of records about people’s phone calls, days before the White House formally unveiled its proposal. The twin plans set up a fight in Congress in coming months.
Jeremy Herb contributed.
This story was first posted at 9:58 a.m. and has been updated.