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Spending Deal a Likely Capstone for a Prominent House Chairman

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 10: House Appropriations chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rogers has shepherded a host of omnibus packages since becoming the House’s top appropriator. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House’s man of the decade on big budget bills, Harold Rogers, may be in his final days in such a catbird seat.

The Kentuckian has been the top Republican engineer on four consecutive omnibus packages during his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. Now he’s on the cusp of completing his fifth, belatedly setting spending levels for a fiscal year with 10 weeks already in the rearview mirror.

But, if the recent past is a guide, this bill will be the Rogers swan song. He’s still got one more year with the gavel. But it will be a presidential election year, and Congress decided relatively early in 2008 and again in 2012 to call timeout in the budget debate until the White House winner could play a decisive role. Both times, first under Democratic control and then with the Capitol divided, lawmakers went home to campaign after agreeing in September to putting almost all agencies and programs on autopilot until the following March.

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Should that pattern continue — and many senior lawmakers already suffering from budget fight fatigue are already talking about it — Rogers will soon enough find himself a lame duck.

On the pretty safe assumption the GOP will hold the House next fall, the next three most senior members of Appropriations have begun quietly positioning themselves to move up. Even with tight budget caps, guaranteed antagonism from small-government combative conservatives and a prohibition on earmarks that would smooth the process, the chairmanship remains one of the most prestigious titles in all of Congress.

The early betting favors Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who’s next in line by virtue of seniority and is chairman of the Defense Subcommittee, which already has control over half the entire discretionary spending pie.

A shrewd member of the shrunken cluster of Republican moderates, he’s balanced an out-of-step centrism on most social and environmental issues with an attention to domestic spending restraint and military spending growth that’s in the mainstream of his colleagues.

Frelinghuysen is expecting at least one challenge from his right, and maybe two.

Kay Granger of Texas, who chairs the subcommittee responsible for foreign aid, would have the power of the biggest state delegation in the House GOP behind her and would bring her caucus some politically potent gender diversity. (No Republican woman has ever occupied the center chair of a premier House committee.)

Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, now chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee, is arguably a more outspoken fiscal conservative than the other two and could appeal to the rapidly expanding younger generation of members. He was put on Appropriations as a freshman in 1997 but turned 50 this summer, making him two decades younger than both Frelinghuysen and Granger.

For his part, Rogers will turn 78 on New Year’s Eve and will soon need to reveal where he wants to take his career next.

Kentucky’s candidate filing deadline is on Jan. 26. For years, it was almost universally assumed in the state’s political circles that Rogers would retire from Congress in 2016, when his chairmanship finishes simultaneously with the end of his 18th term.

But he appears ready to defy those expectations, raising almost a half-million dollars in time to report a campaign bank balance of $1.3 million in October — more than enough, very likely, to ward off the sort of tea party GOP primary insurgent who would pose the only serious threat to his re-election.

Such a challenger would have a case to make that the incumbent’s pragmatic approach as chairman, balancing confrontation with the Obama administration and the limits of Republican power to reduce spending, has not been done enough for the conservative cause. But no such person has ever surfaced, even in this tea party period, and Rogers has won his past 10 terms with at least 74 percent of the November vote.

Kentucky’s 5th District, in the heart of hardscrabble Appalachian coal country, is more than just the most lopsidedly Republican in the state. Its 29 percent poverty rate and $30,000 median family income also mark it as one of the 10 poorest congressional districts, and its 11.2 percent jobless rate (versus 5 percent unemployment nationwide) and the 28 percent of adults without a high school diploma (double the national share) suggest the region’s economic plight won’t be transformed soon. The district is also one of the most rural in the country; the population of its biggest municipality, Somerset, is 11,000.

The district Frelinghuysen has held since 1995 is almost the demographic inverse, suggesting a sharp change in worldview would be in store if he steps up. New Jersey’s 11th , a mix of rolling horse farms and glass office boxes in the westernmost New York suburbs, is among the richest half-dozen districts in the country (median family income of $99,000) and also one of the best educated: 53 percent have college degrees and another 41 percent are high school graduates.

This summer Rogers made clear that, even if he decided on a 19th term, he would not campaign to remain chairman, which would require persuading the leadership to waive his caucus’ pretty ironclad six-year term limit rules. (The previous top Republican appropriator, Jerry Lewis of California, was turned down flat when he sought such a waiver and ended up with no power center in his final term before retiring in 2012.)

Instead, Rogers said he would be content to follow the precedent set by Lewis’ predecessor, C.W. Bill Young of Florida, who returned after his run as chairman to the life of a “cardinal” (the nickname for the Appropriations subcommittee bosses) and took the top seat on Defense panel until his death two years ago.

Rogers would more likely take the helm of a domestic spending subcommittee, leaving the Defense panel as a substantive consolation prize for the runner-up as his successor. While Frelinghuysen could keep the gavel another four years, Granger and Aderholt are on the subcommittee and could readily make the case for taking over if the current chairman gets the big prize.

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