WASHINGTON _ Rep. Joe Barton met with House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner for half an hour Tuesday in a closed-door meeting in the minority leaders office as the Texan accelerated his already aggressive campaign to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress.
Barton, the ranking Republican on the panel, is battling a House GOP conference rule that limits either chairs or ranking members to three terms, or six years, unless the GOP Steering Committee grants a waiver.
The Texas Republican, however, has maintained that he does not need a waiver although he served one term as chairman and two terms as the ranking member when the GOP was in the minority. In a Dear colleague letter Barton sent to all Republican members Tuesday, he described the conference rule as ambiguous regarding the distinction between serving as chairman or ranking member.
Saying that the rule used the term or, Barton wrote, This can be interpreted either to count ranking member service the same as chairman service or to count it differently. Obviously, serving as ranking member is not the same as serving as chairman.
Chairmen wield enormous power to set the agenda, hire staff and control a budget that is generally one-third larger than that of the minority.
The Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over nearly every aspect of American life, including energy policy and health care.
Barton proposed five options to clarify the rule, which, according to one GOP Texas member, he wants the House GOP Conference to consider Wednesday when members meet to elect leaders.
The first option would be to make the House GOP rule conform to the Senate GOP rule, which allows senators to serve six years as chairman and six years as ranking member. Other options include maintaining the three term limit as chairman and not limit the ranking service at all and limiting ranking member terms to five consecutive terms.
However, a senior GOP aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authroized to speaker for the Republican leadership, said that it was unlikely that Boehner would support any modification of the rule, which he has repeatedly said, three terms means three terms.
Barton last week sent out a press release with a letter from three former GOP chairmen former Reps. Bill Archer of Texas, Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania and Don Young of Alaska supporting his position that he does not need a waiver.
Saying that they had all been ranking members when the GOP won control in 1994 after 40 years and all became chairmen, they wrote, Now our friend, Joe Barton, finds himself in a similar position. Joe has served one full two-year term in the chair at the Energy and Commerce Committee and is seeking a second term. He was denied the chairmanship when Democrats won the majority in 2006 and held on to it for four years. We believe he deserves that second term now, and that neither the spirit nor the letter of the rule was ever intended to prevent it.
Meanwhile, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who is next-in-line to be chairman and has also been waging a campaign to head the energy and commerce panel, on Tuesday formally announced his bid.
In a barb at Barton, Upton pointedly said that he was a team player and would not engage in jurisdictional infighting. Other members who have also announced their interest in being chairman should Barton not get a waiver are Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill. and Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.
The fight for the chairmanship has been fierce.
Although Barton disavowed the mailing, there was a widely circulated email trail attacking the moderate Upton last week, highlighting his votes and describing him as a part-time Republican.
And Barton has solicited GOP support, especially among the freshmen, for his position in case the GOP Steering Committee, which decides chairmanships and assignments, rules against him. Barton aides say that the entire conference makes the decision by voting on the recommendations of the Steering Committee usually a pro-forma action.
One GOP aide said it would be unprecedented for the conference to essentially defy the speaker who effectively controls the steering panel and overrule a recommendation.