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Chafee Gets Key Gavel

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), the only Senate Republican to have voted against the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, is poised to take the gavel of the Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees Middle East policy.

The Rhode Island moderate’s selection to helm the subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian affairs came as a surprise to some panel observers, who had thought as recently as last Thursday that the gavel would go to Sen. Sam Brownback (R). The Kansan is considered an expert on Middle East issues and received a coveted waiver to remain on Foreign Relations despite having won the GOP’s only open seat on the Appropriations Committee.

But Chafee, who is currently the No. 3 Republican on the Foreign Relations roster, decided last week to take the Near Eastern subcommittee himself after Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) chose to helm the subcommittee on international economic policy, export and trade promotion.

“You look at the choices [of available gavels] and there is no more interesting place in the world,” Chafee said Tuesday. “This is too good to pass up.”

Chafee explained the relative lateness of his decision by saying that he had been unaware until recently that Foreign Relations doled out its subcommittees by seniority and that he did not know he would end up No. 3 on the panel after retirements and departures from the committee. He was seventh on the roster at the start of the last Congress.

The shuffle comes as Foreign Relations prepares to turn its focus toward Iraq matters. On Thursday, the full committee will hold a hearing on the report by United Nations weapons inspectors. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte will appear as witnesses.

The full panel will also hold a hearing Feb. 11 on “the future of Iraq.”

While Republicans such as Hagel have raised questions about aspects of the administration’s Iraq policy, Chafee was the only Senate Republican to vote against last year’s resolution authorizing force, and he has accused the White House of “bellicosity” on the issue.

Asked whether his differences with the administration on Iraq would be a problem, Chafee said, “I don’t want to overstate the power of subcommittees. They’re not really that important.”

The final lineup for Foreign Relations’ eight subcommittees likely will not be set until next week. It is not clear which subcommittee Brownback will end up chairing, and his office declined to comment for this story.

The delay has occurred because two of the GOP Members newly added to the committee — Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), who joined in July 2001, already chair two subcommittees apiece on other panels and are thus ineligible to take one on Foreign Relations. So even after freshman Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.) receive Foreign Relations gavels, there will still be one vacant chairmanship.

The Foreign Relations changes are occurring in the wake of a confusing mid-January Republican Conference meeting at which waivers for committee assignments were debated.

Foreign Relations is one of four “Super A” committees — along with Appropriations, Armed Services and Finance — and Senators can serve on only one of those elite panels unless they receive waivers, something that is decided by a vote of the entire GOP Conference.

In addition to Brownback, several other veteran Senators had hoped to be granted waivers. But after voting early on in favor of granting a waiver to the Kansan, Republicans voted against giving one to Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), who had hoped to join Foreign Relations while keeping her seat on Appropriations.

Calling the entire process an “odd thing,” Hutchison said Tuesday that some Republicans were upset after the Brownback vote because they thought the Super A limits would be strictly enforced this Congress and that waivers wouldn’t be available to anyone. “People felt they didn’t have notice,” she said. “There was a lot of confusion.”

Hutchison only sought to get the Foreign Relations spot after she was blocked from getting a slot on the Intelligence Committee, something that wouldn’t have required a waiver. Originally, she said, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had assured her a seat on Intelligence. But after he was forced out as Republican Leader, Lott decided he had more time to devote to committee work and used his seniority to claim the Intelligence seat for himself.

The waiver debate occurred two months after Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), hoping to allow senior members to remain on the committee, asked to have his panel delisted as a Super A committee. The debate became contentious, as Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) also sought similar treatment. “I brought up the idea that the two committees should be treated alike,” Warner recalled.

Lugar’s proposal won by three votes. But the Indianan decided such a key rule shouldn’t be decided by such a narrow margin and withdrew his amendment to Conference rules. Instead, the Conference agreed to give the Republican leader more leeway in granting waivers so senior members could get on Foreign Relations, prompting Hutchison to believe she could get her waiver at this month’s meeting.

“That was why I did it,” she explained.

Instead, a debate that Lugar called “testy” followed and Hutchison lost her bid for a waiver, ending the issue and leaving others who wanted a waiver without a fallback plan.

Sources said that Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who was given a seat on the Finance Committee, had wanted to remain on Foreign Relations as well but decided not to bother asking for a waiver because he didn’t think he would get one.

Also frustrated in their attempts to gain waivers were Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who had to give up Armed Services in order to join Finance, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who wanted to remain on the Environment and Public Works Committee even though he had seats on two other “A” committees.

Sources suggested that Brownback’s argument in favor of his getting the waiver was based on two factors. The first was that he is up for re-election in 2004 and would certainly benefit from the high profile the subcommittee would provide; the second was that he has developed expertise on Middle East issues and would thus be an asset to the committee if he remained.

Though there is little indication that this had any effect on the Conference’s vote, many pro-Israel groups were eager to see Brownback remain on the committee, since he is seen as one of the more stalwart supporters of Israel in the Senate.

A senior Senate GOP aide said the vote against Hutchison’s waiver most likely stemmed from her already holding a leadership post. “The Conference is also interested, as a general rule, in spreading the wealth,” the aide said.

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