Two-Man Battle for House Ways and Means Committee

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

( - Reps. Bill Thomas (R-Cal.) and Phil Crane (R-Ill.) are locked in a two-man battle for control of the House Committee on Ways and Means, one of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill.

Political observers note that both men have personal liabilities and ideological track records that could factor into the House Republican leadership's decision to choose one over the other. The matter comes to a formal vote in early January by the House steering committee, which consists of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) with five votes, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) with two votes, and 24 other Republican members. The full House Republican membership then votes to accept or reject the steering committee's choice.

Thomas, who is out-going chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Health, has a reputation with members of both parties as being less than congenial to work with. "He's not exactly a pussy cat," said Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Marshall Whitman.

Thomas also has a reputation of being a political moderate, which brings criticism from the likes of long-time conservatives Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and David Keene of the American Conservative Union. Keene calls Thomas "not just a moderate but a fairly liberal Republican."

Crane, on the other hand, has a history of alcohol abuse and treatment that could be a factor in leadership's decision. Despite that, Crane's conservative credentials go back to the 1960s, earning him the loyalty of Weyrich, Keene and supply-side economists like Steve Moore, president of Club for Growth.

"He was for the flat tax before it was cool," said Moore.

"I think it's very important to the conservative movement to get Crane in that spot," said Moore. "He has been a very effective subcommittee chairman; the [Ways and Means] Trade subcommittee has really moved a lot of free trade legislation very craftily and very professionally," he said.

Conservatives like Keene and Moore believe Crane will be the better champions of tax cuts.

"[Thomas] has basically signaled, in a number of informal ways, that tax reduction is not really at the top of his agenda," said Keene.

"You need somebody who can get the Bush tax cut through, and that's the most important issue," said Moore. "It's not that I'm opposed to Thomas," Moore added, "but Phil Crane is about as good as it gets."

Whitman agrees that Crane would be an asset to a Bush Administration.

"I think if there's a President Bush, [Crane] would be a loyal advocate and water carrier for the Administration," said Whitman.

Thomas, on the other hand, would be more "pragmatic," "independent" and detail-oriented than Crane, according to Whitman, who thinks Republican leadership will choose Crane.

As to which candidate the Democratic minority might prefer, opinions differ. Whitman thinks the Democrats would see Thomas as a mixed bag. "Democrats might see more opportunity in terms of negotiating with Thomas than with Crane; however, Thomas might be a more formidable adversary because he's more conversant with the details of the issues," said Whitman.

The office of the ranking minority member of the Committee on Ways and Means did not return a call seeking comment.