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Even as House Republicans determine how best to fill the leadership vacuum created by Rep. Tom DeLay’s (Texas) ouster from the Majority Leader’s office last week, observers believe it is unlikely the Conference’s committee chairmen will use the opportunity to expand their own authority.

Republican lawmakers and aides suggested that DeLay’s leadership style — one that continues past trends but less authoritarian than under the Gingrich Speakership — could prove beneficial during his absence from the leadership.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, suggested that the continual consolidation of power in the GOP leadership in the 11 years since the Republican Revolution has nonetheless created a sense of “shared responsibility” among the chamber’s chairmen.

“Committee chairmen under the Republican system have a lot of autonomy,” Barton said, later adding: “We reorganized … that was the will of the Republican Conference. It still is.”

The Texas lawmaker acknowledged that rule changes like the implementation of term limits have given the Speaker more authority over members of the GOP Conference, but asserted that change has proved “a good thing, not a bad thing in the last 10 years.”

“This is not a thing where as chair … I don’t have the authority and economy to do what I need to do,” Barton added.

Similarly, one senior Republican aide said of DeLay’s tenure: “He was sympathetic. He didn’t put us in a box and tell us this was how it was going to be.”

Nevertheless, with an uncertain future, some shift in control may be imminent.

Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) suggested that as lawmakers strive to show unity in coming weeks, there will develop “a team spirit and a sharing of authority by necessity.”

“There is a feeling everyone will have to work together and hunker down,” Davis added.

Moreover, Davis said he expects the power structure to become “more collaborative” under the guidance of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who was named to temporarily fill the No. 2 spot last week when Conference rules requiring indicted leaders to vacate their posts forced DeLay to step down.

“Roy Blunt is one of the most capable guys in the Conference,” Davis said, but added: “It’s not the time to try and be Tom Jr.”

Expectations also remain high for Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who will take on added responsibilities in the Whip’s office, and Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), tapped to help craft the legislative agenda while serving as chief leadership liaison to committee chairmen. Together, they are tasked with maintaining control in the Conference.

“That is smart to keep him in that position because it’s good for the transition,” a senior Republican aide said of Dreier, noting his tenure at the helm of the Rules panel has given him a familiarity of his fellow chairmen, making him a “natural choice” for the post.

“He makes the transition seamless in the sense that he’s a very capable stand-in for DeLay when it comes to refereeing the inevitable jurisdictional fights,” the GOP aide said. (Dreier had been Hastert’s initial choice to fill the Majority Leader office.)

One of the first trials for the new leadership team could take place later this week when the energy bill is expected to reach the House floor. The legislation would likely combine bills pushed by the Energy and Commerce and Resources panels.

“That’s the test. A bill like that that is going to cut across a variety of committees,” the aide added.

Still, some lawmakers remain resolute in their stance that changes in the leadership team remain temporary. “Tom DeLay has been a very positive force on our Conference,” Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif) said Thursday, before adding that the Conference remains committed that DeLay only “temporary step aside.”

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