A Look At The Next Crop Of Potential House Leaders

Republicans expecting to take control of the House next week may dream of repealing health care and slashing spending, but given the president's veto pen (among other obstacles), they're likely to achieve more as oversight watchdogs. And who will these new overseers be? From Darrell Issa on the Oversight Committee, to Dave Camp at Ways and Means, to Lamar Smith at Judiciary, expect to see investigations launched and Cabinet secretaries called in to testify. But wait — there is a potential obstacle for some of the new chairmen: House GOP rules say you can only serve three consecutive terms as chairman or ranking member.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If we can believe what the polls say, Republicans are likely to win control of the House of Representatives in next Tuesday's election. Congress may end up split with Democrats still in charge of the Senate. If they do win control of the House, Republicans would take over the leadership of all the committees.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports on who those new leaders might be, and what role they'd be likely to play in a divided Congress.

AUDIE CORNISH: Some new committee chairmen are fairly easy to pick out. They're currently the ranking Republicans on the panels, like Dave Camp of Michigan on Ways and Means; or Lamar Smith of Texas, at Judiciary; or Darrell Issa of California, on Oversight. They've hinted that they'll zero in on the Obama administration's so-called czars, and hold hearings on everything from climate-change regulation to the new health-care law, to ferreting out abuse in the stimulus program.

Political science professor Linda Fowler, of Dartmouth College, says the emphasis on oversight may be driven by partisan politics, but that's not necessarily a bad thing after years of the Democrats' kid-glove handling of the administration.

Professor LINDA FOWLER (Political Science, Dartmouth College): But it is also the case that the kind of suspicion of government, the sense that you see -particularly in the Republican base among Tea Party activists - the government can't be trusted, that it can't do anything right, that really primes the pump to take the natural inclination when you have polarized parties, and really put it on steroids.

CORNISH: Of course, not all the committee chairmanships are done deals. And for those in question, the jockeying has already begun.

Mr. BOB WALKER (Former Republican Congressman): Well, there's a lot more jockeying taking place now than took place back in 1994, when we first took over the Congress.

CORNISH: That's Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman who was a key player in Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution.

Mr. WALKER: Everybody was new to the process; nobody had been chairman. So now, people have the experience with it. They know some of the powers that go with it, and there will be considerable jockeying, particularly where people's term limits have run out.

CORNISH: Did you hear that? Term limits. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans have rules barring members from serving more than three terms, or six years, as committee chairman or ranking member.

Walker says the idea was to avoid the kind of decades-long dictatorships typical of the Democrats when they controlled the House for 40 years.

But now that Republicans may lead again, Walker says expect some to challenge term limits. Like Texas Republican Joe Barton, of the Energy and Commerce Committee. You might remember him from the oil spill hearings this summer, when he said this to BP executives.

Representative JOE BARTON (R-Texas, Energy and Commerce Committee): I apologize. I do not want to live in a country...

CORNISH: That may have already threatened Barton's chances at the Energy Committee gavel. And he would have to seek a waiver from term limits if he wants the chairmanship. So too, would California's Jerry Lewis at the Appropriations Committee. But Bob Walker says he doesn't expect waivers or challenges to get very far under the presumptive House speaker, John Boehner, who was there when the rules were written.

Mr. WALKER: I think there are going to be people who are going to seek the waivers. I think it's going to be difficult for them to get them, because the fact is that you have all kinds of people below those chairmen who are sitting, waiting to be bumped up themselves. And that makes up the majority of the conference.

CORNISH: And the conference meeting is weeks away. In the meantime, Republicans next in line for leadership posts are enjoying the attention from campaign donors, lobbyists and press.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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