House Republicans Mum On Ways and Means Chairmanship

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - Key votes on House committee chairmanships are scheduled for this week, and neither the House leadership nor most members of the Ways and Means Committee are saying publicly who they prefer as chairman of one of Congress' most important panels.

By all accounts, the real vote comes Thursday from the Republican steering committee, headed by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who will have a disproportionate influence on the result. Hastert has five votes, Majority Leader Dick Armey gets two votes, and all other members of the steering committee get one vote. As a formality, the full Republican conference votes as well, probably later that day.

Ways and Means controls hot button political issues like health care, Social Security, taxes and trade, making it one of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill.

Before Christmas, 13 out of 23 Republican committee members reportedly sent a letter to Hastert, endorsing Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Three subcommittee chairmen are vying for the full committee chairmanship: Thomas, Phil Crane (R-Ill.), and Clay Shaw (R-Fla.). Insiders say the contest is really between Thomas, chairman of the Health subcommittee, and Crane, chairman of the Trade subcommittee.

Crane, a long-time supply-side conservative, is the favorite of several prominent conservative leaders off the Hill, like David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Steve Moore of the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth. Crane is known as more of a loyalist to the Republican leadership. He also appears to have solved personal problems after receiving treatment for alcoholism last year.

Thomas has received high marks for his mastery of the substance and politics of health care issues. He does have a reputation of being difficult to get along with, even among members of his own party.

Reps. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Gerald Weller (R-Ill.) are publicly endorsing Crane. "Phil Crane has been a mentor to Congressman Weller [and] they're both from Illinois," explained Weller's spokesman, Ben Fallon. "He's shown that he is able to build the relationships and put together a capable legislative agenda for the committee," said Fallon.

A spokesman for Rep. Wes Watkins (R-Okla.) said his boss is supporting Thomas but otherwise not commenting as to his reasons for the endorsement. Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) is reportedly another Thomas supporter.

Early on, Hastert asked members to resist talking about who's endorsing whom and why, according to Thomas's spokesman. However, members may have greater incentive to remain publicly silent on the subject. Whoever wins the chairmanship could make committee life difficult for supporters of the losing candidate.