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Tauzin to Delay Exit Until March Primary

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will delay leaving Congress for K Street for a few weeks to prevent Louisiana’s Democratic governor from scheduling a special election for the day that thousands of Democrats head to the polls for the state’s March 9 presidential primary.

“There is no way that Tauzin would leave before the presidential primary,” said a key House source. “He is not going to gift wrap the special election for Democrats.”

Tauzin also plans to endorse a longtime friend, state Rep. Hunt Downer (R), to replace him in Congress and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) to take over the gavel of the Energy and Commerce panel, according to spokesman Ken Johnson.

Although he was expected to throw his support behind Barton for the committee post, many Republicans thought Tauzin would try to bestow his House seat to his son, Billy III, a lobbyist for BellSouth.

Tauzin is in talks to step down from Congress to become president of the pharmaceutical industry’s trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association.

Last week, Tauzin surprised Washington by rejecting a generous contract from Hollywood to replace Jack Valenti as president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Though PhRMA has not issued Tauzin a formal proposal, several industry sources said the well-heeled trade group could double the $1 million-per-year offer from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, a number of Democrats and government watchdogs criticized Tauzin for weighing a position with PhRMA so soon after ushering an industry-backed Medicare reform bill though Congress.

“For the chairman of the committee who negotiated this bill to take that job after having knocked Democrats out of the process entirely, will absolutely reinforce the notion that it’s the special interests that are in charge of policy,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee who opposed the Medicare bill.

Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics said that “even if the formal talks did not begin until after his work on the bill was done, you have to wonder if he was looking to please PhRMA — and whether they were dangling this out there.”

The controversy over Tauzin’s future even reached the Democratic presidential campaign trail, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark lashing out at the Congressman.

“It is unconscionable and wrong that the man who led Republican efforts to pass one of the biggest boons to giant pharmaceutical companies in history is receiving a payoff in the form of a lucrative position as chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry,” Clark said in a statement.

House ethics rules give lawmakers broad discretion to discuss jobs with companies or trade groups.

Once an offer is on the table, Members are discouraged — but not prohibited — from voting on issues that affect the company or industry.

Government watchdog Public Citizen plans to send a letter to Capitol Hill today asking the House ethics committee to tighten the so-called revolving door rules, according to Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at the organization.

For his part, Tauzin spent the weekend in Louisiana mulling the options with his family and close friends.

“I don’t expect any decisions to be announced for a couple of weeks,” said spokesman Johnson.

To help him with the job negotiations, Tauzin has hired Chuck Work, an attorney with McDermott, Will & Emery.

PhRMA’s hunt to replace departing chief Alan Holmer is being led by a board-level panel with help from an executive search firm.

Tauzin said there is “no need” for him to step down as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee because PhRMA has not made him a formal job offer, according to Johnson.

Johnson also said that Tauzin will not make a final decision on his future until he consults with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

As of Monday, there was no indication that Tauzin had sought guidance from House Republican leaders about his negotiations with PhRMA or whether he would be required to leave the committee chairmanship.

“I don’t see him leaving the committee. I can see there being a point where he’d step down as chairman,” said a senior GOP leadership aide, though the aide cautioned that such a move had not yet been discussed.

The GOP Steering Committee plans to meet Wednesday, though the planned agenda does not include Tauzin.

Instead, the committee will decide what to do with the Energy and Commerce seat vacated by ex-Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) when he was elected governor of Kentucky in November.

Steering will also move to fill the committee seats vacated by ex-Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.).

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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