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Playing the Slots: GOP Departures Create Coveted Committee Vacancies

The steadily increasing trickle of House Republicans planning to retire or explore bids for other offices is being watched closely by a select group of lawmakers — the ones who want top committee seats.

Slots will be available in the 109th Congress on all three of the House’s most influential panels: Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means. And in all three cases, the lines have already begun to form at the hearing room doors.

On Appropriations, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) is looking to run for the Senate, while Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) may also try to make a move to the other body.

The most aggressive aspirant for an Appropriations seat has been Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg (R), whose desire to land a slot on the panel predates this Congress.

“I started working on it last session,” Rehberg said of his Appropriations bid.

The Montanan is basing his case largely on geographical concerns, aiming to fill the void that will be left by Nethercutt’s departure.

“I’m making a play for the Nethercutt seat,” he said, pointing out that a whole swath of states between Minnesota and Washington currently have subpar representation on the spending panel.

Rehberg has been actively working the Steering Committee. He has already spoken to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) about his bid and is scheduled to meet with Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) soon. Last Tuesday, he lobbied Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator who also serves on Steering as a regional representative.

Lower down on the seniority scale, freshman Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) has made clear his desire to serve on Appropriations since he first emerged as a House candidate.

“Obviously, my district has a longtime relationship with the Appropriations Committee,” Bonner said, though he emphasized that he is focused on his current work and is not actively campaigning for a panel slot.

Before his election, Bonner served as top aide to then-Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.), an Appropriations cardinal. Callahan’s predecessor in his district, Rep. Jack Edwards (R), served on the committee as well.

Also looking to land a position on the spending panel is Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi (R).

“He was interested in being on the committee as we entered this Congress and his interest remains there,” said Tiberi spokesman Bruce Cuthbertson.

As a regional representative, Regula could help steer support to his fellow Ohioan. But Tiberi could be hurt by the fact that Regula and Buckeye State Rep. David Hobson (R) already hold top slots on the panel.

Geography will also be a key factor in deciding who will take the Ways and Means seat to be vacated by retiring Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.).

As on Appropriations, lawmakers from Western states will argue that McInnis should be replaced by a fellow westerner. If that argument carries the day, the beneficiary could be Nevada Rep. Jon Porter (R).

“It would be an honor for him as a freshman to even be considered,” said Porter spokeswoman Traci Scott.

The Nevada gaming industry has long pushed to get a home-state lawmaker on Ways and Means, but Silver State Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) has been unable to win a seat on the tax-writing panel despite repeated attempts. That could open the door for Porter.

South Carolina Rep. Henry Brown (R) is also seen as having a strong shot at the seat.

“Congressman Brown definitely remains very interested in the Ways and Means Committee and is watching it closely,” said Brown spokesman Steve Stampley.

GOP sources suggested that Brown was first in line to get on Ways and Means before this Congress but lost his chance when newly minted Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was named to the panel instead.

As a South Carolinian, Brown may have to prove his free-trade bona fides to Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) before he would be given a seat. Lawmakers from the Carolinas are often compelled to push for trade protection of the beleaguered textile industry, though Brown’s is not known as a heavy textile-producing district.

Farther south, Florida Rep. Adam Putnam (R) had been eyeing the Ways and Means seat of Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who unexpectedly backed out of a Senate race earlier this month.

“I had been lining up support prior to Foley coming back into the House,” Putnam said.

The two-term lawmaker said he still believes he has a strong case to make, arguing that Florida’s rapid population growth warrants giving the state an additional seat.

Minnesota Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is also seen as a potential Ways and Means contestant. His office did not return a call seeking comment.

The race for Energy and Commerce seats is slightly quieter than those on the other two committees. Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is likely to vacate a seat as he pursues a Senate bid, while Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) is running for Kentucky governor this year and could be off the panel shortly if he wins.

The top contender for taking one of those seats is Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan (R), who came excruciatingly close to winning a slot for this Congress. During Steering Committee deliberations, Sullivan tied with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on the first round of Energy and Commerce voting. Issa then won on the second ballot.

The narrow loss only strengthened Sullivan’s desire to win a seat, and he has pushed his case with Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a top panel member who also serves on Steering.

“I’m from the fourth-largest gas-producing state in the country,” Sullivan said, adding that Oklahoma has thousands of workers in the energy and telecommunications industries.

He also pointed out that his state is currently without a seat on Energy and Commerce for the first time in several Congresses, as former Oklahoma Reps. Tom Coburn (R) and Steve Largent (R) both served stints on the panel.

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