Barton and Upton vie for Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Expected Speaker-to-be John Boehner’s choice of a chair for the Committee on Energy and Commerce is seen by many as an early indicator of how much deference he will give to the more conservative incoming Republican class, but it is not clear that the decision is as black and white as it is being made out to be.

The choice is between the more conservative Joe Barton of Texas, the current ranking Republican on the committee, and Fred Upton of Michigan, and it is receiving a lot of attention since contentious issues such as health care, abortion and the environment fall under the committee’s jurisdiction. Barton would need to receive a waiver from the GOP leadership in order to serve as chairman, since he has served one term as chairman previously, followed by two terms as ranking member, and House Republican Conference rules do not permit anyone to serve more than three consecutive terms in either top position. The decision whether or not to give Barton a waiver is expected to be made the week following Thanksgiving.

Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida and Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois have also announced their intention to seek the chairmanship if Barton is denied a waiver to serve. However, the two were among eight returning members of the Energy and Commerce Committee who signed a letter to the party leadership declaring their support for Barton.

Barton has worked to portray himself as the establishment’s answer to the Tea Party, calling himself “Tea Party when Tea Party wasn’t cool.” He has highlighted the differences between himself and Upton, especially emphasizing flashpoint issues like federal funding for abortion, which Upton has voted in favor of numerous times. Last week, a 22-page letter was circulated highlighting this fact and analyzing Upton’s voting record, especially in regards to abortion rights and stem cell research.

Upton, the ranking member on the subcommittee on energy and environment, is being portrayed as too far to the left. Generally considered to be a moderate, Upton’s record is in many cases the polar opposite of Barton’s. In 2007, Upton co-sponsored the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which imposed a de-facto ban on incandescent light bulbs by 2012. In September, Barton co-sponsored legislation to turn back that part of the act.

Upton has often broken ranks with the GOP. His votes in favor of TARP and against extending the Bush tax cuts in 2009 are among his more criticized. But it is his record on abortion and stem cell research that has garnered the most criticism from conservatives. However, though Upton voted numerous times in favor of federal funding for abortion, in November, he co-sponsored the Protect Life Act, which would remove all federal funding for abortion from the health care bill.

Nonetheless, within the conservative community, views are mixed as to whether or not this race is actually the ideological dichotomy Barton and his allies are making it out to be.

“[Upton’s] record just shows that he wouldn’t really be a pusher for conservative causes,” said Tom McClusky, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, “including when it comes to repealing the health care bill — of course that committee will be very influential.”

On the other hand, McClusky noted, Barton and Upton are not the polar opposites that Barton’s people are presenting them to be. “Barton would be a little better on the life issue,” he said, before adding, “he’s also bad on the stem cell issue.”

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, seems nonplussed by the choice. “Barton and Upton and Shimkus would all work well with the caucus in the general direction of doing tough oversight on the administration and on health care,” Norquist said. “If somebody got to be chairman and were a runaway chairman in terms of failing to do oversight and they were left wing, they could be replaced later. I don’t think that causes a problem with tea party folks who are going back to their lives but are looking back over their shoulders at Washington to see if things have actually begun to change.”

Barton himself declined to comment on the possible competition between himself and Upton, instead speaking in cut and dried terms about the possibility of a rule change.

“It’s possible, I hope probable, that we’ll have a rule that is either a new rule or clarifies the existing rule, so that there won’t be any necessity for any kind of a waiver,” he said. “It’ll just be a straight up who wants to be chairman of each committee…and who’s most qualified based on their record.”

“Term limits are good,” Barton continued, “but the reason you have term limits is to limit power. And you don’t have power unless you’re in the majority.”

Though Barton said that when he talked to Boehner several months ago about a rule change “he was open on this particular rule issue,” the GOP leadership has suggested that this is not the case.

“The committee term limit rule has been in place since the Contract with America,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House GOP leadership, “and Leader Boehner has said publicly on several occasions this year that it will remain in place and will not be dropped or loosened.”

A complicating factor, however, is that Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis seems likely to receive a waiver to become chair of the Appropriations Committee, a fact that would seem to boost Barton’s claim to the chairmanship.

Upton did not return a request for comment.