- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Curt Weldon has begun a campaign to win the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee over rivals with more seniority in an effort to improve military readiness as well as life for U.S. military personnel.

"I think I have an excellent chance," said Mr. Weldon, noting he has garnered key congressional backing and letters of support from such diverse circles as former Clinton administration CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former Republican Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Harvard academic Graham Allison and conservative activist Paul Weyrich.

The powerful chairmanship, which overseas activities of the U.S. military and its annual $300 billion-plus budget, is open under rules limiting terms for committee chairmen to six years.

The current chairman, Rep. Floyd D. Spence, South Carolina Republican, could take over the Veterans Committee, now headed by Rep. Bob Stump, Arizona Republican, who is also a contender for the Armed Services Committee post. Mr. Spence also could take an Armed Services subcommittee chairmanship.

Mr. Weldon, 53, says he wants to use the position to bolster U.S. defenses through legislation and as a bully pulpit to increase public awareness of defense and national security issues.

"If you look at what happened in the last eight years, it has been one of the worst times in American history in terms of undermining our national security," Mr. Weldon, a seven-term lawmaker, said in an interview. "Yet when you look at polls, defense and foreign policy are at the bottom of list of priorities.

"I want to elevate defense and national security issues for the American people to a new level."

Mr. Weldon, a volunteer firefighter and school teacher, represents a district west of Philadelphia and has made a reputation as a key pro-defense leader in the House. He is a strong advocate for building missile defenses, both nationwide and in regions, and took part in special committees that investigated Chinese technology and espionage, and U.S. policy toward Russia.

A Russian-language speaker, Mr. Weldon also has established ties between House members and Russian democratic reformers and lawmakers.

The outcome of the race for chairman ultimately will be settled by House Republican bosses, led by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican; Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican; and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

Mr. Army is said to be backing Mr. Stump, and Mr. DeLay is said to favor Mr. Weldon. The speaker's preference could not be learned.

Under current rules, the speaker has five votes for a committee chairman, the majority leader has two, and all other members have one.

Mr. Stump said in an interview he's been on the committee for 23 years and expects to assume the post under the normal seniority system. He noted that Mr. Weldon is 10 years younger.

"The challenge is to rebuild our defenses and overcome the Clinton administration's shortcomings on defense," Mr. Stump said of his priorities. "It's going to be a great time with a Republican administration."

Mr. Weldon has outlined his ambitious program as chairman in a glossy, 36-page booklet that calls for new and aggressive leadership.

"Now more than ever it is clear we need a focused and integrated effort in the House to strengthen our military and promote the excellent work of the Republican conference on defense and national security," Mr. Weldon stated.

"Over the past eight years, the Clinton-Gore administration has dramatically compromised our military readiness, abandoned our troops, bungled away our nuclear secrets, and auctioned off our most sensitive technology; yet we did little to exploit these scandals in defense of our military or to the benefit of our party and its candidates," he said.

Mr. Weldon wants to reconfigure the current Armed Services subcommittees by creating air power, sea power, strategic and land forces subcommittees to improve oversight of weapons development programs.

He also is calling for a new nuclear and energy security subcommittee to monitor U.S. nuclear weapons labs beset with security and management problems.

Legislative priorities for Mr. Weldon would include focusing on computer-based warfare, relations with Russia and China, specific goals for improving military readiness and life for U.S. military personnel.

"If I have the gavel, there will be a steady stream of substantial legislation ready to go to the floor legislation that will unite our party and command overwhelming majorities in the full House," Mr. Weldon stated.

"Under a Weldon chairmanship, the annual defense authorization will be the cornerstone of a legislative schedule that will send a variety of winning bills to the House floor."

He is also calling for more briefings by Pentagon officials and regular visits to troops and a new "virtual reality" hearing room that would use high-technology video conferencing for hearings.

Mr. Weldon was on the special House committee that investigated Chinese nuclear spy and missile technology acquisition, and plans to pursue the recommendations of the Cox committee, named after its chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican. Those recommendations include better oversight of the national nuclear weapons labs and a crackdown on exports of high-performance computers.

Mr. Stump said Republicans will begin interviewing prospective Armed Services chairmen next week and he expects to win the post.

"Most people generally support the seniority system, and I think if we don't, we could be in trouble in Congress because of our slim majority," Mr. Stump said.

The Republican Steering Committee, made up of House leaders, is set to meet tomorrow to begin the process of interviewing committee chairman candidates.

Mr. Weldon is scheduled to be questioned by the panel tomorrow and Mr. Stump will appear on Wednesday.

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