Friday, January 5, 2001

House Republican leaders settled a series of bitter fights yesterday by skipping over two senior members to install younger lawmakers as chairmen of major committees.

Rep. Bill Thomas of California won the battle to head the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Thomas, 59, defeated Rep. Phillip M. Crane, 70, of Illinois, a 31-year veteran of the House whose future was dimmed by news last year that he was seeking treatment for alcoholism.

Rep. Michael G. Oxley of Ohio was selected to run the Banking and Fiscal Services Committee. Mr. Oxley, 56, pushed aside Rep. Marge Roukema, 71, of New Jersey, who had angered her fellow Republicans by cooperating with Democrats and staking out one of the most liberal records in the Republican caucus.

“We did our best to put the best people in each slot,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

The battle for House chairmanships was unusually bitter this year because of a Republican rule, passed in 1994, that limited chairmen to a maximum of six years at the head of a panel.

“We had to make some tough decisions. I was looking for a soft landing someplace,” Mr. Hastert said after nine hours of deliberations with fellow Republicans.

Most choices went smoothly, such as the transition at the top of the Judiciary Committee, where Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin took over from Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who became chairman of the International Relations Committee. Also an easy switch was at the top of Commerce, where Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin of Louisiana takes over for retiring Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia.

Republican leaders named Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa to head the Budget Committee, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio to head the Education and Workforce Committee, and Rep. Donald Manzullo of Illinois to head the Small Business Committee.

The leadership battle took one casualty yesterday, as former Transportation Committee chairman Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania retired from the House when it became clear that leaders would not give him a new committee position. Mr. Shuster has been dogged by scandals and investigations in recent years, though no charge against him has ever been proved.

Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Hyde, meanwhile, lost a quiet battle to get an exemption to the six-year limit. He had wanted to retain control of the Judiciary Committee and had hinted he would retire if he were rebuffed.

To keep Mr. Hyde in the House, Republican leaders jumped over the most senior remaining member of the House International relations Committee, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, to give the chairmanship to Mr. Hyde. He replaces Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York.

Mr. Hyde, 76, is one of the elder statesmen of the party and one of its most senior members, elected in 1974. He spent the past six years at the head of the Judiciary Committee, where he is perhaps best known for guiding through articles of impeachment against President Clinton in 1998.

Although he was lower-ranking than Mr. Leach on the committee roster, he is actually more senior in the House at large. Mr. Leach was first elected in 1976, two years after Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde’s solid pro-life record was an attraction for House leaders as well. He is is a longtime activist on pro-life issues and is considered the most eloquent speaker on the topic among Republicans.

The International Relations Committee deals with policy toward international family planning organizations, which sometimes lobby for more liberal conception and abortion laws overseas. It also deals with relations with China and other repressive governments, a sensitive question for Christian conservatives.

Although he is conservative on pro-life issues, he can otherwise hardly be confused with the more conservative younger members of the Republican caucus. He supported the 1994 Brady Bill, which called for background checks on gun sales, for example. Although he allied with them in impeaching Mr. Clinton, Mr. Hyde has made clear his distaste for the hardball tactics of Republicans elected in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.

Mr. Hyde is known for his gentle style, courtly manner and subtle wit.

Some conservatives saw Mr. Hyde’s victory as a positive move because he is far more conservative than his rival for the the job. Most important, conservatives see international relations as an important committee and are more than relieved that it will be in the hands of a trusted fellow conservative.

Although most choices were without much rancor, in a few cases the scramble for power took on a vigor that is usually reserved for top leadership posts such as speaker or majority leader.

By far the most contentious battle was for the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which eventually went to Mr. Thomas after months of private backbiting and acrimony.

Mr. Thomas, former chairman of the House Administration Committee, is known as bright and capable, but he is also considered secretive, prickly and moody. His relationship with his colleagues and with the press has been tense ever since he took over the House Administration Committee.

He jumped over the more senior Mr. Crane, who had made no secret of his desire to head the tax-writing committee. But Mr. Crane, although well-liked by his colleagues, is not known as a particularly sharp or aggressive organizer a potentially important fault in the face of the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, a legendary debater and political brawler.

Mr. Crane may also have been hurt by his revelation last year that he was seeking treatment for alcoholism.

Mr. Thomas was also tainted by the hint of a scandal last year, when the Bakersfield Californian reported rumors that he was having an affair with a lobbyist who had business before his committee. But Mr. Thomas resolutely refused to comment on the issue and the story largely died without seriously damaging him.

“He’ll be a great chairman. I have already talked to him to tell him I would do anything I would do to help him as chair,” said Crane supporter Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington.

Republicans will have to wait and see how Mr. Thomas handles President-elect George W. Bush’s across-the-board tax cut. Tax cuts have never been a priority for him. But conservatives said he could get the Bush tax cut structured and passed exactly as Mr. Bush wants it if Mr. Thomas decides that he too wants it.

Where the battle between Mr. Thomas and Mr. Crane was largely personal, the battle between Mrs. Roukema and Mr. Oxley was more of an ideological civil war.

Mrs. Roukema, the longest-serving woman in the House, has consistently confounded her conservative colleagues by supporting Democratic measures, including the 1993 law requiring businesses to offer unpaid leave to workers with family emergencies. She has also supported President Clinton in his budget priorities and allied with Democrats on health care reform legislation.

She alienated many younger conservatives by backing an ethics investigation of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and opposing his earlier candidacy for minority whip, a position that catapulted him to the leadership of the House.

Mrs. Roukema survived a primary challenge last year, backed aggressively by conservative Republicans, but was unable to rally centrist support to save her bid for the chairmanship.

As a consolation prize, Republicans named her vice chairwoman of the committee.

• Ralph Z. Hallow and John Godfrey contributed to this report.

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