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Armed Services Seat Spurs Battle

Correction Appended

The race for the top Republican position on the House Armed Services Committee quickly evolved into a full-blown campaign last week as two members of the Republican Conference prepared to square off before the House Republican Steering Committee on Tuesday.

Reps. Howard McKeon (Calif.) and Mac Thornberry (Texas) began calling colleagues on the 28-member Steering Committee to gauge their support almost immediately after learning of ranking member John McHugh’s (N.Y.) nomination by the Obama administration to be the secretary of the Army last week.

McKeon and Thornberry had private conversations with Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), who hold seven of the 33 Steering Committee votes between them.

Rep. Randy Forbes (Va.) initially expressed interest in the position as well but has since decided not to run, according to GOP sources.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), the most senior member of the committee, has also indicated he will seek the post but has not mounted the lobbying operation of McKeon and Thornberry.

The Steering Committee will meet Tuesday to choose a successor for McHugh, according to several GOP sources.

McKeon and Thornberry will give presentations to the Steering Committee to outline their qualifications for the post, but each will likely know their standing with the committee before they begin their speeches.

Like in many leadership campaigns, McKeon and Thornberry initiated mini-whip efforts last week, which were in full swing on the House floor even before McHugh officially resigned from the committee Wednesday.

“Usually you have a whip or some kind of manager,— said one GOP aide who has been involved in several leadership campaigns. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is counting votes for McKeon, and Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) has been a driving force for the Thornberry camp, according to GOP sources.

Usually candidates can count on the votes of Members from their own state; McKeon and Thornberry are evenly matched since California and Texas both have four members of their delegation on the Steering Committee.

The two contenders have very different résumés. McKeon, currently the ranking member on the Education and Labor Committee, has served on education-related committees since he arrived in Congress in 1993.

McKeon and Thornberry joined what is now the Armed Services panel in the 104th Congress, but because McKeon was elected a term before the Texas Republican, the Steering Committee considers him senior.

McKeon’s spokeswoman Lindsey Mask said that during his time on the Armed Services panel, he has championed the issue of providing the military with the armed defense resources that they need. She also pointed to the fact that he is a member of the House Missile Defense Caucus as evidence that he is committed to national security issues.

McKeon is well-rounded and has a track record of proven leadership abilities that he would apply to the Armed Services Committee, Mask said.

“Right now Congressman McKeon sees serious issues at hand; the administration is poised to make major defense cuts, and there are growing threats around the world, including from North Korea and Iran,— Mask said. “These aren’t things to come, these things are happening right now, and the committee needs strong, proven leadership.—

Supporters of Thornberry claim that McKeon viewed the Armed Services Committee as a second priority, pointing out that McKeon took a leave of absence from the panel when he assumed the chairmanship of what was then the Education and the Workforce Committee. McKeon’s office said he took the six-month leave to make room for another Republican Member.

Thornberry has focused primarily on defense-related issues since he came to Washington. D.C., in 1995, and his supporters note that he serves on the Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services panel.

McKeon’s supporters are reportedly making the case to Members that Thornberry’s experience is too narrow to lead such a high-profile committee and that McKeon is more senior.

Thornberry’s office was hesitant to comment on the issues that he would be stressing during his speech next week, but said that Thornberry has the background to confront the changing nature of modern warfare.

“This is not a fight we want to wage on the front page of the newspaper,— Thornberry spokesman George Rasley said. “Mac has been working his game, talking to members of the Steering Committee and is very encouraged by the response he has received and the recognition that Republicans need a strong advocate on national security.—

Correction: June 8, 2009

The article misstated Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R-Calif.) committee history. He has served on education-related committees since he was elected to Congress in 1993.

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