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Buyer Challenges Smith for Veterans Affairs

Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer (R) has launched a campaign to unseat Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) from the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee, prompting national veterans groups to rally to Smith’s side.

Last week, Buyer informed the House Republican Steering Committee that he wanted to be interviewed for Smith’s job. He will get his wish Wednesday when the selection panel convenes to continue its work to fill chairmanships and other committee slots.

Neither Buyer’s nor Smith’s offices returned calls seeking comment.

Since becoming Veterans Affairs chairman in 2001, Smith has repeatedly antagonized the GOP leadership by vocally calling for more veterans funding. He has voted against leadership-backed spending bills several times despite public and private warnings that he could lose his chairmanship as a result.

Upon word of Buyer’s challenge to Smith, veterans groups quickly swung into action, writing letters, releasing statements and venturing to the Hill to emphasize their support for Smith.

“Chairman Smith is a tireless advocate for veterans and their families, and he understands the multitude of issues confronting veterans,” Robert Wallace, the executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement. “We [the VFW] strenuously object to any attempt to replace him as chairman.”

Veterans groups are a potent political force on Capitol Hill, both because most Members are inherently sympathetic to their cause and because of their ability to stir up trouble in lawmakers’ districts.

Ironically, those groups’ vocal support for Smith may actually backfire on him, since he already stands accused by the leadership of having coordinated too closely with outside groups to attack his fellow Republicans.

“If they think coming up here to argue for Chris Smith is going to help Chris Smith, they’re crazy,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

Buyer has long been viewed as the most likely successor to Smith as Veterans chairman. Though he is currently fourth in seniority on the panel, Buyer’s profile as a fiscal conservative and decorated Army veteran makes him attractive to the leadership as a replacement for Smith.

Leadership sources declined to speculate on Buyer’s chances of defeating Smith at either the Steering Committee or full Conference level. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have both chastised Smith in the past but it is not clear whether they are prepared to unseat him two years before his term is set to expire.

Even if he garners substantial support, Buyer faces at least one significant hurdle before he can become chairman. The Indiana lawmaker currently has a waiver that allows him to sit on both Veterans Affairs and the Energy and Commerce Committee.

According to Republican sources, Buyer has said he does not want to give up his Energy and Commerce seat, and it is unlikely the leadership would allow him to retain that post and serve as a chairman at the same time.

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