WASHINGTON — When it comes to defense and national security issues on Capitol Hill, Washington state will have a powerful one-two punch.
Washington Rep. Adam Smith was elected by his colleagues late Thursday as the top Democrat on the House Armed Service Committee. Earlier, the Democratic caucus had named Washington Rep. Norm Dicks as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations' defense subcommittee.
Though they will be in the minority in the next session of Congress, the pair will be at the center of the national debates on everything from Iraq and Afghanistan to gays in the military.
"They (Smith and Dicks) are viewed as being forceful and credible on national defense issues," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a national security think tank in northern Virginia. "They are not shrinking violets."
Thompson said the two give Washington state a major presence when it comes to defense issues.
"If you are not going to be in the majority, the next best thing is to have ranking members on two of the most influential committees in Congress," Thompson said.
If the Democrats eventually retake the majority in Congress, Smith and Dicks would chair the committees.
"I have no illusions, I have a lot to do to get up to speed," Smith said Friday. "But it is a good one-two punch for the country."
Dicks said he and Smith will do everything they can to protect the Army, Navy and Air Forces bases in Washington state. Smith's district includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Dicks' district includes the extensive Navy complex on the Kitsap Peninsula.
"We will certainly be in a good position to work with the services, our colleagues and the administration," Dicks said.
The ranking member slot on the Armed Services Committee opened up when the top four Democrats on the panel lost their re-election campaigns.
Smith, who was just elected to an eighth term, was considered a bit of a long shot when he announced he would seek the post. He has chaired two of the committee's subcommittees, Air and Land Forces, and Terrorism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities.
Though he had campaigned for weeks, Smith may have clinched the job with what other members called a serious and strong presentation to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. That committee makes recommendations on leadership posts to the full Democratic caucus.
"He made an impressive presentation and he got their endorsement," said Dicks, who sits on the Steering and Policy Committee.
But even with the endorsement, Smith faced a tough battle with two other members of the committee, Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes and California Rep. Loretta Sanchez. Reyes ranked just above Smith in seniority on the committee and Sanchez just below him. Reyes is also chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
In the first caucus vote, Smith and Sanchez both received 64 votes and Reyes was eliminated, with 58 votes. In the second ballot, Smith won 97-86 as he picked up support from many of the Reyes supporters.
"It was three qualified people and caucus politics can be intense," Smith said.
Dicks had to survive his own challenge. Dicks had previously been tabbed as the top Democratic on the full House Appropriations Committee, and some members of the caucus felt it was improper for him to also be ranking member on the defense subcommittee. Dicks had to beat back a resolution offered by North Carolina Rep. Mel Watt barring him from serving as ranking member on the defense subcommittee.
Even though he's in the minority, Smith said he could still be effective. He will also likely emerge as one of the leading Democratic spokesmen on defense and national security issue.
"By tradition the Armed Service Committee is more bipartisan than most committees, and I will be able to work with the majority," he said.