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Congressional Musical Chairs

When Congress returns after the elections, some of the hottest battles between lawmakers are likely to be within the Republican Party about who will get what seats on the House Armed Services Committee.

While House GOP members and staff are largely resigned to getting whupped next month, they also know that they can remain something of a force by hammering away at the Democrats in the role of loyal opposition. And the HASC will have a lot of holes to fill.

Here's the quick and dirty: the top Republican on the committee (known as the ranking member), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is retiring, as is the second ranking GOP member, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-NJ), who heads the powerful airland subcommittee.

That means a battle for the top slot and those are usually great fun for those of us watching. Today, Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) are the likeliest candidates to replace Hunter. McHugh has the most seniority and is ranking member on the military personnel subcommittee, where he is respected for his detailed knowledge of the issues and his rational approach to the issues.

Thornberry has made intelligence and joint forces issues his specialty. He is a dogged legislator and has helped craft several important pieces of legislation, including the first draft of the bill that led to the Department of Homeland Security and one that led to the creation of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a single agency overseeing security at the disparate facilities that build and design nuclear weapons.

This all gets very complicated because McHugh and Thornberry also both serve on several subcommittees at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Thornberry has more seniority at the HPSCI and there is the possibility of several openings on his subcommittees since Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) is retiring at the end of this session.

Everett's retirement sets in play openings on both Armed Services and the HPSCI. He is ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, where Thornberry also serves. If Thornberry does not become the HASC's ranking member, he would have a good shot at becoming ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee. He would be helped by the strong influence of intelligence issues (such as classified satellites) on the nuclear and space issues with which the subcommittee grapples.

Thornberry would have at least one opponent should he try for ranking member on strategic forces, Rep. Trent Franks, (R-Ariz.). Franks, who has publicly discussed his intent to become ranking member on strategic forces, is a passionate Reagan Republican. He made missile defense his signature issue this session in the House. However, Franks has little seniority and would have to have luck on his side to move so far up on the committee ladder. He is also not known for his skills at compromise and that could hurt him. That said, Franks does have supporters on the committee and has worked hard at mastering the complex political and technical issues surrounding missile defense.

The airland subcommittee ranking spot that Saxton is vacating is most likely to go to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), who will be second only to McHugh in committee seniority.

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