The Magazine

The Other Post-Election Struggle

The battle for Capitol Hill

Dec 4, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 12 • By MATTHEW REES
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AS THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT lingers on the turmoil in Florida, back in Washington a number of congressional Republicans are vying for leadership positions and committee chairmanships. The outcome of these contests will offer some clues about the coming term.

The hardest fought race is in the House, where Phil Crane of Illinois and Bill Thomas of California are running to succeed Bill Archer, retiring chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. On paper, Crane has the edge, with his conservative credentials (he ran to the right of Ronald Reagan for the GOP's presidential nomination in 1980) and seniority (he's the longest-serving Republican in the House, having arrived in 1969). In years past, these two factors alone would have guaranteed him the top job. But Newt Gingrich shook up the committee assignment system when he became speaker in 1995, passing over members for chairmanships if he deemed them too moderate or passive. (Crane, in fact, was passed over then for Ways and Means.)

The reason Crane isn't a sure thing is that he has, over the years, become a non-entity in the House. He's been a reliable conservative vote, but has done little to build support for his favored issues, largely because he was an alcoholic, regularly consuming 10 Heinekens a night. In March, eight of his friends conducted an intervention, and convinced him that if he was to have any hope of becoming Ways and Means chairman he'd need to stop drinking. He entered a rehabilitation facility shortly thereafter, where he stayed for a month, and he now proclaims himself a new man.

Crane's willingness to confront his drinking problem has been well received by his colleagues, as has his fund-raising prowess. He garnered approximately $ 2.5 million for Republican campaign funds over the past two years, with $ 500,000 coming from a single contribution he solicited from an old friend, Silicon Valley executive Tom Siebel.

Crane is now thought to be the narrow favorite, though he has a formidable opponent in Thomas, who's widely recognized as one of the smartest and most politically savvy House Republicans. But Thomas, a moderate, is often described as too smart for his own good. He tends to alienate not only his adversaries but even his allies with a brash manner. And it's widely believed that if he ends up chairing the committee, he will tolerate little or no interference from the House GOP leadership. Crane would be more amenable to leadership intervention.

Thomas's expected clout is one reason 13 current members of the committee signed a letter recently pledging to support him. But in the House GOP's byzantine system of selecting committee chairmen, this counts for less than it might seem. The choice is actually made by a committee composed of the House leadership, committee chairmen, regional representatives, and one person from each of the three most recent House classes. Even more important, House speaker Denny Hastert gets five votes in the committee, which are likely to benefit his fellow Illinoisan, Crane. The other wild card in the race is the report in a California newspaper in June that Thomas, who's married, was romantically involved with a well-known health care lobbyist in Washington. With the prospect of Thomas being investigated for conflict of interest -- the committee has jurisdiction over certain health care issues -- Republicans may decide Crane is the less risky choice.

The other high-stakes House contest is for the chairmanship of the Commerce Committee. It pits Billy Tauzin of Louisiana against Mike Oxley of Ohio. This race has been brewing for the past few years, with Tauzin emphasizing his skills as a legislator and communicator, and Oxley touting the fact that while he may be somewhat low profile he's easy to work with, and has spent many more years as a Republican (Tauzin switched to the GOP in August 1995).

Unlike the Ways and Means race, this contest involves little intrigue. Both candidates are well liked by their colleagues, and the two are ideologically akin, though Tauzin is now the clear favorite. Not only did he raise more than Oxley this year, and campaign for more candidates, he's also viewed as better equipped to win favorable media coverage. After the networks called Florida for Al Gore, he was quick to urge hearings, and received a burst of publicity. He also took the lead in the Firestone hearings, bashing the company and deflecting Democratic charges that the GOP was in the pocket of big business. Last, Tauzin threw the most lavish parties at this year's Republican convention in Philadelphia -- something aides and lobbyists are still talking about.