House GOP: There Will Be Blood

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D,C., November 23, 2010 — Republican blood is flowing in the halls of Congress as the GOP works to establish leadership and jurisdiction of its new House majority. The territory at stake involves energy and environment.

In the House, where the gore is great, a gun fight is underway over who will chair the all-powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, featuring a dispute over, of all things, light bulbs.

Two committee members are vying openly for the chairmanship. Two others are waiting in the wing (the right, of course), no doubt hoping that the leading candidates will finish fatally ventilate the other, providing an opening for a dark horse.

At the same time, the presumptive chairman of the Natural Resources Committee has launched a daylight attack on the Energy Committee’s energy jurisdiction. The House GOP could resolve the raging disputes next week, when the 23-member GOP steering committee meets to pick chairmen of the standing House committees. Incoming speaker John Boehner of Ohio controls four votes on the committee and Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia two.

During it all, the lame ducks of the outgoing 111th Congress are trying mightily, without much effect so far, to wrap up their business before Christmas. As they try to escape Washington for the holidays, they find themselves tripping over the large incoming cohort (93 freshmen in total, 84 of them Republicans) of clueless ducklings entering the 112th edition of the Greatest Show on Earth.

In the GOP House, Texan Joe Barton wants to reclaim the leadership of the House Energy Committee, where he was chairman from 2004 until the Donkeys ousted the Elephants in 2006. Barton was then ranking GOP member for two more two-year terms. In order to be the once-and-future chairman, the steering committee will have to agree to waive the House GOP’s self-inflicted rule of term limits for committee leaders. Republicans are unsure how two terms as ranking minority member counts in the three-three limit.

Barton, who knows more than the average Republican (or Democrat, for that matter) about energy and is a skillful legislator, suffers from a major political problem. During the hoop-de-doo over the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill last summer, Barton committed truth and accused the Obama administration of extorting the British oil company into putting up $20 billion of its own money to fund damages from the spill.

While accurate, that was so politically incorrect that even the most tone-deaf Republicans were aghast. Barton was giving live ammo to the folks who claim that Republicans coddle big business and are insensitive to average citizens. He was told to move out of the committee co-pilot chair and sit below the partisan salt. The rap on Barton — one of the worst things one Republican can say about another — became that he is a “loose cannon.”

Now, Barton wants his first chair back. But Michigan’s Fred Upton, a long-serving Republican on the committee and as buttoned-down as they come, wants to be chairman of the most powerful committee in either the House or the Senate.

Upton has a major problem, too. He’s viewed as — gasp — a moderate. His chief crime, it seems, is that he supported 2007 energy legislation, signed by George W. Bush, that effectively bans incandescent light bulbs, forcing consumers to buy bulbs that use less electricity, whether they want them or not. Upton is promising that, if named chairman, he will be “reexamining” the bulb brouhaha.

Upton’s candidacy has ignited sniping from the right flank. How “liberal” is he? Very, according to the Grand Inquisitor of the holy church of rightnessness. “All socialist” is how Glenn Beck hyperbolically blessed Upton.

Hiding the brush are Republicans John Shimkus of Illinois and Cliff Stearns of Florida, ready to attack if Barton and Upton succeed in knocking each other off. Both Shimkus and Stearns are known as hard-right conservatives. They have focused most of their energy on the committee looking at telecommunications issues. Shimkus is in line to take over the House Science and Technology Committee, a generally low-wattage panel. Both are publicly supporting Barton. My impeccable Republican sources have told me that should Barton fail, Shimkus will challenge Upton to a political High Noon encounter before the steering committee.

In the meantime, Washington’s Doc Hastings (his given name is Richard and he’s not a doctor), the presumed new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is seeking additional territory for his committee, at the expense of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Hastings wants to create a House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, mimicing the Senate committee of the same moniker.

In an editorial in Politico, Hastings argued, “This is a clear, common-sense reform that deserves thoughtful consideration based on its merits.” It is unlikely that the chairman of the energy panel, regardless of who that is, will see much validity in the Hastings land grab. It reminds oldtimers (yours truly) of the Brobdingnagian battle in 1980 when Democrat John Dingell defenestrated two more senior Democrats, Harley Staggers of West Virginia and Jim Scheuer of New York, to create the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The new committee that Dingell took over has jurisdiction over energy, health, telecommunications, finance, and practically anything else a high-wattage chairman chooses to illuminate with his or her presence.

Will Hastings succeed? We should know in a week or so.

Coming next week: The Storm in the Senate