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Rep. Silvestre Reyes a contender to head House Intelligence Committee

WASHINGTON—Rep. Silvestre Reyes has an unusual pedigree for a member of Congress: He was a Border Patrol agent for 26 years before being elected in 1996.

Reyes, 62, can point to that law enforcement background, along with his work on defense, veterans and immigration issues, as the Texas Democrat emerges as the leading contender to become the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

"Silver," as the silver-haired El Pasoan is known, isn't campaigning for the post, a tactic that backfired on Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, whom Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi rejected as chairman Tuesday. The speaker handpicks the chairman of the committee.

But Reyes, who's served almost six years on the Intelligence Committee, definitely is interested. Reyes isn't talking now, but when McClatchy Newspapers asked him earlier this month whether he wanted the chairmanship, he said, "Of course. That would be a tremendous challenge that I would look forward to."

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the current ranking Democrat on the committee, also was passed over as chairman, making Reyes next in line.

Pelosi and Harman have a frosty relationship, and Harman bucked Pelosi by not aggressively opposing the Bush administration on Iraq.

Reyes has the backing of congressional Hispanics, which may quell the unhappiness of the Congressional Black Caucus over Hastings being denied the job. Congress removed Hastings as a federal judge in the late 1980s after he was accused of taking a bribe. He was acquitted of the bribery charges, and was elected to Congress in 1992.

"I am 100 percent behind Silvestre Reyes," said Democratic Rep. Charlie Gonzalez of Texas. "He's highly respected and everyone gets along very well with him, Democrats and Republicans, and I think that's what we're trying to achieve."

Reyes would be the only Hispanic chairman of a major committee. New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez is in line to become the chairman of the House Small Business Committee.

The Intelligence Committee job is highly visible and secretive at the same time. The committee oversees and approves the approximately $40 billion budget for all U.S. government intelligence programs. The chairman of the panel in a Democratic-majority House automatically becomes a counterpoint to the Bush administration over the unpopular Iraq war—and the intelligence used to justify it.

Reyes' background is a big factor in his favor.

"Reyes would be a good compromise candidate," said Loren Thompson, a national security expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia research center.

"Intelligence is a black art and a black science that is technical and has a human side," Thompson said. "This is very complicated specialized knowledge that very few people in Congress possess."

El Paso's regional military facilities include the Army's Fort Bliss, the White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base.

Reyes, who retired as the sector chief of the Border Patrol in El Paso, was a supporter and helped secure funding for the Drug Enforcement Administration's El Paso Intelligence Center in his district. The center provides a multi-agency approach to fighting drug and border violations. It has more than 300 analysts and agents from 15 federal agencies.

Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has worked closely with Reyes on border and international issues.

"I think he would be an excellent choice," she said. "He knows the importance of intelligence, the use of intelligence and the need for confidentiality. I think he'd be a good fit."

The ability of the even-tempered Reyes to work with Republicans will help, as will his solid Democratic credentials.

"You need somebody who's a pretty capable operator at the nexus of partisanship and bipartisanship," said John Plebani, a lobbyist and former top House Democratic staffer.

Reyes has been looking forward to being in the majority for the first time since being elected. "All I've known is minority status," he said earlier this month.

Reyes is in line to be the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on strategic forces. It's unclear whether he'd have to give up the subcommittee chairmanship under Democratic House rules.

Reyes' low-key style belies his reputation as a jokester and prankster. In one favorite tale told by staffers, lawmakers including Reyes and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, were at a party in the late 1990s at then-Vice President Al Gore's home. Gore spoke to the crowd and pointed out members he'd served with in Congress and greeted Ortiz "and his new wife." The divorced Ortiz was on a first date and turned several shades of red, staffers say, as he saw Reyes laughing in the corner.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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