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GOP Puts Smith Under Scrutiny

Frustrated again by what they see as insufficient party loyalty by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republican leaders are giving serious consideration to taking away his gavel at the start of the next Congress.

While the leadership has grumbled about Smith’s loyalty since he was first handed the chairmanship in 2001, several Republican Members and aides confirmed that discussions about stripping him of his post have grown more serious in recent months, particularly in the wake of his opposition to the fiscal 2005 budget resolution.

No firm decision will be made until after the November elections, Republican sources said, adding that the leadership is fully aware of the negative consequences that could result from taking away Smith’s gavel.

“Has it been discussed? Yes,” said a Republican lawmaker who is close to the leadership. “But I don’t think they’ll pull the trigger.”

The lawmaker said that with a relatively narrow majority, the GOP would be better off not making Smith any more disaffected than he already is, fearing that he could vote against party initiatives and stir up more trouble.

A factor that may loom even larger is that removing Smith from atop the committee would also likely anger veteran-service organizations, most of which are fiercely supportive of the chairman and politically potent enough to make life difficult for the leadership.

In an interview last week, Smith declined to discuss any “rumors” that the leadership might be planning to depose him. He also suggested that reports of tension have been overblown.

“I treat the leadership with total respect, and I do believe I get the same in return,” Smith said.

In the view of Republican leaders, Smith does not do enough to defend the GOP’s record on veterans’ issues when outside groups criticize the party.

“He just doesn’t cover our flank on a lot of stuff,” said a Republican leadership aide.

No Republican lawmaker has involuntarily lost a full committee gavel since the GOP Conference implemented six-year term limits on chairmen in 1995. Under current rules, Smith could chair Veterans’ Affairs for two more years.

At various points during his tenure as chairman, Smith has been rebuked either publicly or privately by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and not just on veterans’ issues. In 2002, Smith helped break apart a compromise bankruptcy reform bill over a controversial abortion-related provision.

When his gavel was up for renewal at the start of the 108th Congress, Smith was given what sources close to the Steering Committee process described as a blunt warning that he needed to be more of a team player.

But despite that warning, Smith vocally — and successfully — agitated for more veterans-related funding for fiscal 2004. Smith was similarly critical during the current Congress, in the end deciding along with nine other Republicans to vote against the fiscal 2005 spending blueprint.

More importantly, multiple leadership aides said they believe that Smith encouraged other Republicans to vote against the measure and that he held strategy sessions with veterans’ groups to discuss how best to pressure vulnerable lawmakers into opposing the budget.

“I think it’s very disappointing, given the fact that leadership at every turn has looked for ways to work with him,” said a senior GOP leadership staffer.

Smith strongly denied that he had encouraged any of his fellow Republicans to vote against the budget, though he added that his colleagues “certainly were aware” before the measure came to the floor that he did not plan to support it.

Smith said he would not dwell on what went on with the budget because he has a full agenda and has already moved on to other issues.

“I made my point,” he said. “I voted the way I voted.”

Asked whether supporting the party line was part of his role as a chairman, Smith said, “It is my role to be true to my party and my country.”

Smith also took issue with the suggestion that he was too quick to adopt the views of veterans’ organizations.

Veterans’ groups “are an extra pair of eyes and ears,” Smith said. “They are a major source of information but not the only source.”

Those groups have played a key role in helping Smith to repeatedly pressure his own leadership into allocating more funding for veterans’ programs.

“I can tell you without any hesitation that he’s advanced a very aggressive agenda,” said Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion. “He’s taken up nearly every issue … and he’s taken it with a passion.”

Robertson added that if Smith were removed from his post, “I think in the veterans community we would really miss his leadership.”

In March, the American Legion gave Smith its Distinguished Public Service Award for his efforts on behalf of veterans.

During the presentation ceremony, American Legion National Commander John Brieden lauded Smith for his willingness “to take a stand based on principle rather than giving in to political pressures. He is one of those fighters that takes his licks, but never loses focus on his objective — and when the round is over, he is often the victor.”

Brieden also praised Smith for “taking unpopular stands and even jeopardizing his chairmanship, as the chairman is willing to do.”

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