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Contenders vie for top Ways and Means GOP slot after Nunes exit

Buchanan, Smith see new momentum behind bids to succeed Brady

Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, a contender to succeed Texas Rep. Kevin Brady as the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, says tax and trade policy would be top issues for him.
Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, a contender to succeed Texas Rep. Kevin Brady as the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, says tax and trade policy would be top issues for him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

California Rep. Devin Nunesdecision to leave Congress has shaken up the race to take over the top Republican spot on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Given Democratic retirements, redistricting and the historical headwinds facing a president’s party during midterms, many prognosticators believe Republicans are well positioned to assume the House majority in 2022.

That means the successor to retiring Texas Rep. Kevin Brady as top Ways and Means Republican could hold considerable sway over economic policy: The panel’s expansive jurisdiction covers taxes, health care, trade, Social Security and more.

And the surprise move by Nunes — the current No.2 Republican on Ways and Means behind Brady — is putting new momentum behind campaigns by Florida’s Vern Buchanan and Nebraska’s Adrian Smith for the top GOP slot.

Buchanan is technically one rung higher than Smith under the chamber’s seniority system due to the Floridian’s last name coming earlier in the alphabet. Seniority isn’t what it used to be when it comes to winning coveted committee slots, however, as party loyalty, fundraising and personal relationships matter most.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., who joined Ways and Means two years after Buchanan and Smith, said Buchanan has an advantage given his seniority and the fact that he’s been campaigning for the position longer. But Kelly said others could vie for the coveted seat now that Nunes, the former front-runner, threw the process for a loop by bowing out of contention.

“We have a lot of good candidates, and I don’t think there’s anybody on the committee that you’d look at and say, ‘This person has no business even mentioning that they might be the chairman,’” said Kelly, who didn’t rule out his own bid. “It’ll be pretty open.”

Another name that’s come up is House Budget ranking member Jason Smith of Missouri, according to a former GOP aide. Smith declined to discuss the topic, and a spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. Smith is also mulling a bid to succeed retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Never too early

Even with over a year before the party would choose a successor to Brady, campaigning is underway. The day after Nunes confirmed his exit, Buchanan was handing out to GOP lawmakers a list of his accomplishments and imploring them to back his play for the Ways and Means gavel.

Buchanan, 70, hails from a southwest Florida district with a high population of seniors. He owned car dealerships and led the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and is touting his background as a business owner who believes in boosting small and midsize businesses as a key qualification for the role.

Buchanan said he would empower subcommittee chairs and work with Democrats, noting that he has a good rapport with Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts.

“I think anybody who knows me, I want to work in a bipartisan way,” Buchanan said. “I’m a business deal guy, and I like to find the way we get to ‘yes’ if it makes sense on our side. So that’s the mindset I’m going to bring to it.”

Somewhat to the center of his party with a 72 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, Buchanan mostly aligned with former President Donald Trump but broke with him at times, including on climate policy. According to CQ Roll Call’s Vote Studies, Buchanan’s backing for the Trump administration’s positions on legislation slid from 100 percent in 2017 to 82 percent in 2020.

Smith, 50, is a strong advocate for farm policy, representing the biggest agricultural district in the country. He’s pitching himself as a leader with a thorough understanding of policy who’d hear out fellow Republicans, noting that he’d want to get freshmen involved, even if they’re not on Ways and Means. 

Smith, who’s been in elected office since he won a city council seat at 23, is a solid GOP vote with an 89 percent lifetime ACU rating. His support for the Trump agenda remained more constant than Buchanan’s, starting at 97 percent and dipping to 93 percent over four years.

“Folks often describe me as a steady hand,” he said in an interview. “Someone who has a good grasp of the issues and is eager to move the ball down the field, and that always requires team effort.”

Agendas

Buchanan said tax and trade policy would be top issues for him, along with reducing health care costs and ensuring the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare, an issue important to his Sarasota-area district.

Buchanan is building on his credentials: He said he’ll likely take over for Nunes as ranking member of the Health subcommittee next year and said that will be the fifth subcommittee on which he’s held a leading role. 

He’s currently the top Republican on the Trade subcommittee; Buchanan says trade supports 2.2 million jobs in his home state. He’s been pushing the Biden administration to back renewal of “trade promotion authority,” a fast-track process to expedite passage of free trade pacts in Congress.

On narrower tax issues, Buchanan has partnered with Democrats on bills, including those to allow employers to offer tax-advantaged charitable giving accounts, expand tax credits for investments in energy storage technology and cut taxes on a specific type of portable fishing bait container.

Buchanan has taken staunchly conservative stances on a number of health care-related issues. This month, he led a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services opposing the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers. 

He’s opposed Democrats’ attempt to clamp down on prescription drug prices and allow Medicare to negotiate directly with manufacturers. But Buchanan has supported increased transparency from drug manufacturers, in addition to insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers.

Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith, center, here in September with Reps. David Schweikert of Arizona, left, and Drew Ferguson of Georgia, is a strong advocate for farm policy. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Smith, who serves as ranking member on the subcommittee that handles taxes, highlighted his work on the 2017 GOP tax law, which has a number of expiring provisions Republicans will look to preserve in the coming years, and trade issues, which are key for the agriculture industry.

“I always want to make sure that our country is competitive, and that starts in the Ways and Means Committee,” Smith said.

Smith described trade as “probably the No. 1 issue” that led him to depart the Agriculture Committee for Ways and Means. He listed trade as an area for work across the aisle and touted the bipartisan success of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

With Democrats pursuing a $2 trillion budget reconciliation package that Republicans unanimously oppose, Smith pinpointed a lack of work requirements for the child tax credit as a policy he’d want to reverse.

He was a fierce opponent of the Biden administration’s since-nixed proposal to repeal stepped-up basis — which allows the value of assets to reset when they’re inherited and lessens future capital gains tax — over concerns about an impact on family farms.

Also in line with his agricultural focus, Smith was the lead Republican on a bipartisan bill to create a new tax credit for biofuel with a higher ethanol content.

His rural roots also lend to his support for telehealth initiatives. Smith, like Buchanan, endorses the expanded use of telehealth under Medicare, a bipartisan priority that has stalled amid cost and quality concerns.

Fundraising

So far, Smith appears to have an edge in contributions to his colleagues. That sort of boost to the party would be a plus for Smith in seeking a top committee spot, though Buchanan outpaces him in fundraising and has plenty of time to catch up.

Buchanan doled out $11,000 from his leadership PAC to three Republicans — fellow Floridians Kat Cammack and Neal Dunn, as well as Jason Smith — as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission records. He’d raised almost $1.2 million through his campaign committee, with about $500,000 in cash on hand, through Sept. 30.

Smith had sent $45,000 from his leadership PAC to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm, as of Oct. 31. He handed out roughly $200,000 from his campaign committee to fellow Republicans’ campaigns through Sept. 30, and raised nearly $340,000 with almost $1.1 million in the bank.

The top categories for Buchanan’s donors this cycle include retirees, health care professionals, real estate, insurance and hospitals or nursing homes, according to OpenSecrets. His biggest contributors have ties to Florida, including a southwest Florida cancer treatment provider; NextEra Energy, which owns a Florida utility and nuclear power plants in the state; and grocery chain Publix Super Markets.

Smith’s top donors this cycle have been lobbying firms, insurers, agriculture, crop producers and processors, and health professionals, according to the center. Trade groups for beef producers, real estate companies, rural electricity co-ops and independent home care providers are among his contributors, along with a South Dakota-based biofuel company, Poet LLC.

Lauren Clason and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.

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