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GOP May Not Fill Portman’s Leadership Slot

Rob Portman’s nomination last week to be U.S. trade representative means that he will have to be replaced in two key positions: Ohio’s 2nd district Representative and chairman of the House Republican leadership.

Or maybe not.

Once the Senate gets around to confirming Portman for his new job, a special election will definitely be scheduled to fill Portman’s seat in Ohio. But the status of his leadership post is less clear.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appointed Portman, a close friend and ally, to the chairmanship in January 2001 to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears at leadership meetings. Yet because the post carries with it few official responsibilities and no extra budget or staff, it is not clear which of three options Hastert will choose: filling the post with another outside ally in the Portman mold; handing the title to a current member of leadership, such as Rules Chairman David Dreier (Calif.); or simply leaving the position empty.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said there was no set timetable for his boss to make a decision.

“The Speaker is thinking about this very carefully,” Bonjean said.

In choosing his ally Portman for the job, Hastert followed the example of ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who created the position in 1995 and handed it to Rep. Bob Walker (R) after the Pennsylvania lawmaker lost a bruising Majority Whip campaign to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Walker retired in 1996 and the post was taken by Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), who held it for only a few months before his role in an aborted 1997 coup against Gingrich prompted him to announce that he was not running for re-election. After that, the post remained empty until 2001.

Portman’s primary responsibility has been to chair full leadership meetings, which recently have taken place about once every two weeks and include the entire leadership plus key committee chairmen and special guest visitors. Portman also attends — but does not chair — the weekly Elected Leadership Conference along with every member of the elected leadership.

The Ohio lawmaker does not attend the “pre-ELC” meeting, which normally includes only the “Big Four”: Hastert, Majority Leader DeLay, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio). In recent months, Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) have often also attended pre-ELC.

Whatever Hastert decides, the new leadership arrangement will presumably not take effect until Portman is confirmed by the Senate and resigns from the House.

The Senate Finance Committee is waiting for Portman to complete the panel’s questionnaire that asks about, among other things, his past business dealings, tax filings and any potential conflicts of interest. Once the committee receives the questionnaire and panel members are able to fully review Portman’s answers, then Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will schedule a hearing, said Finance spokeswoman Jill Gerber.

“Chairman Grassley hopes to have a nomination hearing as soon as possible, maybe as soon as next month,” she said.

So far, there has been no stated opposition by Democrats to Portman’s nomination, and he is expected to be confirmed. But the minority party is likely use the confirmation hearings to criticize President Bush’s trade agenda.

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), through a spokeswoman, did not commit Friday to supporting Portman’s nomination, and said he would be following the hearings closely.

“Congressman Portman has a long record of being an ardent free trade advocate,” said Rebecca Kirszner, a Reid spokeswoman. “Sen. Reid will be following Congressman Portman’s nomination hearings to understand the Congressman’s views on the administration’s tax and trade stands which has led to the huge export of American jobs overseas.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.

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