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Barton Assembling His Energy Panel Staff

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is quietly piecing together a staff for the Energy and Commerce Committee under the assumption that current Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will leave Congress shortly.

“I’ve had some very informal discussions with a very limited number of people about what their availability would be if there is a change at the committee this spring,” Barton said.

Barton, the heir apparent to the post, plans to tap longtime Washington operative and current energy lobbyist Bud Albright to serve as the committee’s staff director.

Barton also plans to place a handful of longtime allies in senior staff positions on the committee. But he does not plan to make wholesale staff changes at the panel once he takes over.

“No one’s getting kicked out the door,” Barton stressed.

By mapping out an unofficial plan, Barton hopes to accelerate a midyear transition to the chairmanship.

But the move comes with political risks. Appearing overconfident could irritate the members of the GOP Steering Committee, which must formally approve the next committee chairman.

“He’s got to hit the ground running so he’s got to be thinking about who he wants with him on the committee,” said one Barton confidant. “But he also doesn’t want to be presumptuous.”

Barton shares the concern. In an interview, Barton strived to make it clear that he is not pushing Tauzin out the door.

“He’s the chairman as long as he wants to be. I’m happy being a subcommittee chairman,” Barton said. “But if he leaves, I will definitely be a candidate. Maybe even the only candidate.”

Meanwhile, Tauzin remains coy about his future in spite of continued speculation that he plans to retire from Congress in the next month to become Hollywood’s top lobbyist with the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Absolutely nothing has changed and he has no plans on stepping down at this time,” said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. “The only place Tauzin is headed right now is back to work as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

On Tuesday, Tauzin met with his five subcommittee chairmen to plan an agenda for the year and he plans to “lay out a very aggressive agenda” for the committee during next week’s GOP retreat in Pennsylvania, Johnson added.

Tauzin had been scheduled to accompany Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on a fundraising swing through Hollywood and Southern California this weekend.

But the trip was canceled when Tauzin’s doctors advised him to cut down on his travel after being hospitalized twice in the past month with a bleeding ulcer, according to Johnson.

Back in Washington, sources say that Barton has settled on Albright to serve as the staff director of the Energy and Commerce Committee once he lays claim to the gavel.

Albright, a South Carolina native who began his political career as then-Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) driver in the early 1970s, is a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Barton on Energy and Commerce’s oversight panel in the 1990s.

Most recently, Albright was the head of the Washington office for Reliant Energy, the Houston-based energy concern that decided this month to shutter its lobbying shop.

Allies of Barton say Albright will bring gravitas to his staff.

Barton also hoped to hire veteran political strategist David Beckwith, spokesman for then-Vice President Dan Quayle, to serve as his communications director. But Beckwith was hired by Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas).

Several other former Barton aides and allies are expected to lend a hand to the incoming chairman, including lobbyists Jeff MacKinnon, Steve Sayle, Steve Waguespack, Cynthia Sandherr, Edlu Thom and Kerrill Scrivner as well as fundraisers Cathy Gillespie and Julie Wadler.

But a festering, 4-year-old spat among several of the former Barton aides could complicate matters.

In 2000, when a bill to restructure electricity markets was center stage in the Energy and Commerce Committee, Sayle’s wife left MacKinnon’s lobbying firm to join Sandherr as a lobbyist for Enron.

But when Sandherr discovered that her former ally MacKinnon was leading a secret lobbying campaign against Enron, Enron lobbyists grew suspicious that their new hire was a mole in the Enron office — and forced her out.

Years later, interpretations of the event vary, but all sides remain sore.

Sayle’s wife, Desiree, now works in the White House as director of correspondence. After Enron closed its Washington office, Sandherr became a lobbyist for John Deere & Co.

MacKinnon remains a partner with Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon.

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