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Cole considered early favorite to win House Appropriations gavel

Oklahoma Republican is the only member running for the position thus far, has the support of nine of the other subcommittee leaders

House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., attends the panel's hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023.
House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., attends the panel's hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Joe Biden in the Capitol on Dec. 12, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Texas Rep. Kay Granger’s decision to step down early as chair of the House Appropriations Committee opens one of the most powerful jobs in Congress.

But unlike the usual scramble to claim the powerful gavel, the race to fill Granger’s seat may not be much of a race at all, with Oklahoma’s Tom Cole emerging as a clear front-runner and consolidating support from senior appropriators.

Cole, the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee chairman, is the only member running for the position thus far, and has the support of nine of the other subcommittee leaders, also known as “cardinals.”

Alabama’s Robert B. Aderholt, the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee chairman who has a seniority edge over Cole, is also weighing a bid. He’s positioning himself as a more conservative alternative, as he joined a majority of the conference in opposing the most recent final fiscal 2024 appropriations package.

“The Congressman is being very deliberate in making a decision, because it’s clear we cannot continue under the same appropriations process and expect a different outcome,” Aderholt spokesman Carson Clark said Tuesday in a statement.

However, Cole is considered a heavy favorite, as the membership of the GOP Steering Committee leans more toward the establishment wing of the party that provided the votes needed to get the spending package over the finish line last week.

In fact, members of that Steering Committee voted 21-11 to support the new $1.2 trillion spending measure. And that margin grows wider when factoring in the four votes Speaker Mike Johnson controls on the committee and the two votes that Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., controls.

The Steering Committee has not yet scheduled its meeting to fill the position, though it is expected to take place after Congress returns from its current recess. Granger announced last week that she would be stepping into a “chairwoman emeritus” role as the fiscal 2025 process is likely to stretch well into the new fiscal year and she is retiring after this Congress.

Whichever person wins the contest to lead the committee faces a challenging fiscal 2025 dynamic, with a late start and the looming election making any final appropriations close to the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year highly improbable.

The spending caps laid out in last year’s debt limit law will also be challenging for appropriators to navigate, with Republicans warily eyeing a 1 percent increase in defense spending allowed under the cap — amounting to a cut after adjusting for inflation.

And Democrats will be looking for ways to boost nondefense spending, especially as some of the debt limit law’s “side deal” money that would have increased fiscal 2025 nondefense spending was tapped for fiscal 2024 in the renegotiated appropriations agreement between Johnson, R-La., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Cole’s preparation

Cole, 74, has been angling for the position for years, and was part of the crowded field in 2018 running for the post when Granger, R-Texas, was elected to replace former Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.

That contest consisted of five Republicans, including Aderholt, though Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho., dropped out when it was clear Republicans had lost the majority in that midterm election.

This time, Cole has a much clearer path to the gavel.

He quickly consolidated support from his fellow appropriators, with cardinals Mark Amodei of Nevada, John Carter of Texas, Ken Calvert of California, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, David Joyce of Ohio, Harold Rogers of Kentucky, Simpson and Steve Womack of Arkansas rallying behind him.

Womack called Cole “the obvious choice” for the position, citing his experience leading three subcommittees — Transportation-HUD, Labor-HHS-Education and Legislative Branch — and his understanding of the appropriations process.

“He is the most capable, and the most prepared,” Womack said. “There’s not even a close second, in my opinion.”

Cole also boasts strong relationships across the aisle, as he was the top Republican on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, working alongside the panel’s top Democrat, the full committee’s current ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., for six years. In that role, Cole was a staunch advocate for medical research and funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Cole represents a south-central Oklahoma district including Norman and part of Oklahoma City, and is the longest-serving Native American member of Congress, a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

A longtime advocate for his community, Cole marked an early legislative success with a 2004 law that allowed Sulphur, Okla., to swap land with the federal government so the Chickasaws could build a cultural center. Fellow Oklahoman Kevin Hern, who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, is also backing Cole, calling him a “remarkable leader in our conference.”

A favorite of leadership, Cole took on the difficult — to put it lightly — task of Rules Committee chairman at the start of the 118th Congress. Cole also led the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2008 cycle, a difficult one for the GOP, which lost 21 seats.

While Cole was not available for an interview, he described himself as a “budget hawk” in his statement announcing his bid for the chairman’s gavel.

“I believe in stretching our budget’s dollars as far as we can, but I also recognize there are critical needs and challenges that must be funded if our great nation is going to be protected, preserved and improved,” he said. “However, as chairman, I will ensure that, in doing this, we are not wasting and abusing.”

Acknowledging discontent from appropriators who feel shut out of final leadership deal-making, Cole said that as chairman, he would ensure that appropriators are in the room as appropriations deals are being negotiated.

And while he supports a balanced budget, Cole said, it is impossible to solve the U.S. deficit problem by targeting discretionary spending that is the subject of annual appropriations. The Congressional Budget Office has attributed rising deficits to the soaring costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, along with rising interest payments on the debt.

Frelinghuysen described Cole as an exceptionally smart and savvy lawmaker, with an understanding of members’ districts and personalized interests.

“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” he said. “He’s well traveled, well thought of. It’d be a remarkable win for the institution.”

Frelinghuysen said he was particularly grateful to Cole when the Oklahoman came to his aid on an amendment he was sponsoring in 2013 to add $33 billion to a Superstorm Sandy relief package, following that late 2012 storm that devastated parts of the Northeast, including Frelinghuysen’s home state of New Jersey.

While most Republicans opposed it, citing the cost, Cole supported the funding in a gesture of appreciation for Frelinghuysen’s family history on defending Native Americans. Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen, who served during the Andrew Jackson presidency, fought Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced Native Americans to move west.

Cole pushed for the extra Sandy aid by pointing to that history. “He said, ‘I’m supporting Rodney Frelinghuysen because during the Indian removal, his ancestor had the courage to get up on the floor for three days to plead for their safety,’” Frelinghuysen said in recalling Cole’s effort. “It meant something to me when he got up on the floor and spoke for my bill.”

Aderholt angle

If he runs for the seat, Aderholt is likely to lean into his opposition to the final fiscal 2024 appropriations package. Aderholt opposed the measure after his effort to strip Senate Democrats’ earmarks for LGBTQ services and hospitals that perform abortions from the measure fell short.

“We got rid of all our poison riders, and Schumer wouldn’t agree to take away their poisonous earmarks,” Aderholt said.

A majority of House Republicans joined Aderholt in opposition to the six-bill package, with 112 Republicans voting against the measure and just 101 supporting it.

Aderholt, 58, was first elected to Congress in 1996, and represents a northern Alabama district that is one of the most Republican in the country.

While some House conservatives may be more in line ideologically with Aderholt than Cole, the Steering Committee’s makeup — primarily establishment Republicans — gives Cole a clear early edge.

After Steering Committee action, the House Republican Conference would need to ratify the selection in a vote that is considered a formality.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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