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Purse Strings Passed to a Different Sort of Republican

Roby, center, was one of three new conservatives named to the House Appropriations panel Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Roby, center, was one of three new conservatives named to the House Appropriations panel Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three weeks ago, and thanks mainly to the seniority system, an unusual midyear rearrangement of the House Appropriations power structure produced promotions for a quartet of relatively moderate and old-school Republicans.

But on Wednesday, when three vacancies were filled on the committee that decides where the money goes, the winners were a decidedly different sort: Martha Roby of Alabama, Mark Amodei of Nevada and Chris Stewart of Utah are all small-government conservatives from the legion of tea-party-inspired newcomers who have secured control over the House GOP’s ideological center of gravity.

All of them voted against Speaker John A. Boehner’s wishes on both of the most politically important spending votes of this year. Each not only opposed the January legislation delivering an expansive (but not offset) package of recovery and reconstruction aid to Hurricane Sandy victims but also voted against the October bill ending the partial government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling with no anti-Obamacare strings attached.

Yet all have remained in decent favor with their GOP elders, because they’ve steered clear of the boldest confrontational tactics espoused by their most tea-party-infused colleagues.

At the same time, they’ve all branded themselves back home — where their districts are deep red — as so reliably conservative that they have no worries about primary challenges from the right.

For all those reasons, the selection of the trio suggests the Republican leadership is looking to cultivate a different breed for the next generation of appropriators: members with unimpeachable but not melodramatic commitments to fiscal discipline, with enough insider savvy to compensate for a bit of an independent streak, and with a willingness to devote their House careers to the tough trade-offs required in thinning both domestic and defense programs.

It’s quite a different model from even a few years ago, when voting to defeat both of the year’s most consequential spending bills would have been an automatic disqualifier for an Appropriations spot, even on the GOP side. The prerequisites for membership have clearly changed since the Republicans took back the House three years ago. A majority of the panel’s GOP seats, 16 of 29, are now held by members who have won their appointments since the 2010 elections — everyone, in fact, who doesn’t hold some sort of chairmanship on the panel. And of those conservatives, a majority of nine voted “no” on the continuing resolution that reopened the government.

But so too, of course, did three out of four members of the GOP conference, meaning the era has clearly ended when Republican appropriators were more willing than the rank and file to cut a deal that spent more money.

It’s also the case that a posting to Appropriations is much less the holy grail of insiders’ accomplishments than it once was. With overt earmarking disallowed, spending levels stuck near neutral and the budget process struggling to emerge from years of total breakdown, an assignment to tug on the purse strings does not automatically present itself as a ripe plum in either party — especially since taking the job requires saying goodbye to accrued seniority on all other committees.

The frustration was such that Republican Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming, after just one term as an appropriator, took the essentially unprecedented step of getting off the committee this year.

The assignments announced this week suggest the status gap and the relevancy anxieties might be easing a bit. All signs had pointed to the GOP waiting until the new year to fill the vacancies; doing so now underscores the growing expectation that a modest budget deal will be sealed in the next week providing some relief from the sequester — and allowing appropriators about four weeks to reorder spending priorities for the remaining two-thirds of the fiscal year. There would be no rush to fill out the Appropriations roster if the only impending assignment was to write another CR.

Roby, a 37-year-old former Montgomery City Council member who’s particularly popular with her colleagues in the class of 2010, was willing to give up her new chairmanship of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to join Appropriations. “There is no better place to address our nation’s spending addiction,” she said in an email to constituents explaining the switch, which also made clear a top priority would be protecting the interests of Fort Rucker and Maxwell Air Force Base in her home state.

Amodei, who won a 2011 special election after Dean Heller was appointed to the Senate, spent 14 years as a state legislator and two more as Nevada’s GOP chairman. The federal government is the biggest landowner in his 56,000-square-mile district north and east of Reno, which means he’ll naturally be drawn to programs governing water resources and energy.

Stewart, a freshman elected to a newly created seat taking in most of Salt Lake City and half of the state’s rural expanse, is unlike the others in having held no prior public office. He’s the former CEO of an environmental compliance company and a sharp critic of many federal regulations, but he’s better known as a prolific author of works including the best-seller “The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World.”

All three open seats had been held by Southerners: C.W. Bill Young of Florida, who died, and Rodney Alexander of Louisiana and Jo Bonner of Alabama, each of whom resigned. But even though almost half of the GOP’s House seats are in the South, the region lost two of its Appropriations seats to the fast-growing West.

And there remain four states — North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and New York — with six or more Republicans in their delegations but no representation on the committee. The formula for finding just the right members to hold the purse strings, it appears, can only be refined so much.