More consistency than changes seen for Defense panels

With House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton facing a tough re-election challenge in his western Missouri district, speculation is mounting about who would lead Democrats on the committee if the 17-term lawmaker loses his seat in November.

Complicating matters is uncertainty over whether Democrats will be able to maintain their majority in the House -- and what a change in power would mean for both defense spending and Pentagon policy.

With retirements and close races expected to change the makeup of all four congressional defense panels, the House Armed Services Committee leadership -- particularly among Democrats -- appears to be the biggest question mark leading up to the midterm elections.

If Skelton were to lose his re-election, Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., the second most senior Democrat on the committee, is next in line for the gavel. But Spratt's ascendancy in the wake of a Skelton loss is far from guaranteed as the 14-term lawmaker faces a difficult race of his own.

But if Spratt were given the opportunity to lead Democrats on Armed Services, he would have to give up his gavel on the Budget Committee -- likely a difficult decision for the veteran numbers-cruncher.

For its part, the Armed Services chairman's office is expressing confidence in Skelton's re-election bid, as well as Democrats' chances of keeping a majority in the next Congress.

"We don't anticipate a change in the majority, and we expect Chairman Skelton to be back next year to continue all of his great work for our military and national security," a committee spokeswoman said.

The committee is not making any contingency plans, nor have any panel members begun publicly jockeying for the chairmanship should Skelton lose, aides said. But at least some informal chatter is emerging over what happens if Skelton loses and if Republicans take the House.

After Spratt, Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, is next in seniority and, according to House aides, would be a noncontroversial pick to lead Democrats on the committee.

Ortiz's focus over the last several years has been the readiness of the heavily deployed U.S. combat forces, as well as on military construction -- areas that customarily have the mutual support of Republicans and Democrats and are rarely contentious.

Whether it is Skelton, Spratt or Ortiz who holds the Democrats' top spot on the committee in the 112th Congress, the type of leadership on the typically bipartisan panel would remain unchanged.

There are a "certain amount of old guard guys who are very bipartisan [and have a] nice gentlemanly approach to things," said a House Democratic aide. "I don't see big style changes."

After Ortiz in seniority is Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., an unwavering pro-defense Blue Dog who often sides with House Republicans on key votes -- a fact that doesn't help his chances of taking over the powerful committee.

Another senior member of the Armed Services panel is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who is close with House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But it is unclear whether the Texas lawmaker would give up one chairmanship for another, or whether he would be asked by leadership to do so.

A dark-horse candidate for the top Democrat slot, should he choose to pursue it, could be Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, who is viewed by members and staff as a rising star on the committee. Last year, Smith took over the subcommittee, which oversees Army and Air Force programs and is arguably one of the committee's most important.

But to select Smith for the post, Democrats would have to pass over both Ortiz and Taylor and risk angering both the Hispanic Caucus and Blue Dogs -- two groups that leadership particularly would need support from if the Democrats' majority dwindled to only a few votes.

Across the aisle, Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., would likely hold his spot as the top Republican on the panel whether the GOP takes the majority of the House or not.

But Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the third most senior Republican on the panel, put up a formidable challenge during the campaign for the ranking member slot last year, and he could do so again in a new Congress.

If Republicans win in November, "McKeon is going to make every effort to be chairman," said a House GOP aide. But the aide stressed that committee Republicans are not "counting their eggs before they hatch."

As the majority, the party would gain several new seats on the committee, but those gains will not be decided until after the election. There could also be some shuffling of subcommittee leaders, but the GOP aide said McKeon "has great confidence" in the current Republican leadership on the committee.

Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services leadership -- with Sen. Carl Levin, Mich., the top Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Ariz., the top Republican -- would likely go unchanged in the next Congress, particularly now that it looks like Democrats will maintain at least a narrow majority in the chamber.

And despite a lot of turnover on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., -- who also serve as the leaders of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- are expected to keep their posts.

But there could be some changes in the makeup of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, regardless of which party is in power.

For one thing, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., is seeking to become chairman of the full committee and intends to keep his hand at the helm of the defense panel as well. But while Democratic chairmen have traditionally been allowed to also keep an appropriations subcommittee, sources said leadership may not allow that practice to continue next year.

On the Republican side, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla., will reach the end of his six-year term limit at the end of this Congress. He could, however, seek a waiver from the steering committee to extend his tenure as the subcommittee's top Republican.

Should control of either chamber switch after the election, the defense panels, whose issues tend to fall more often along parochial lines than partisan ones, would not experience a seismic shift.

But Republicans, who have raised concerns that projected annual increases to defense spending are getting smaller, could use their majority status to try to fatten the Pentagon budget, or at least match the Obama administration's request. This year, House appropriators trimmed $7 billion from the fiscal 2011 request, while Senate appropriators cut $8.1 billion from the base budget.

Regardless of which party is in power, "it's only going to get better from [outgoing House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David] Obey, who is not a big fan of the defense bill and would happily raid it for all he could," a former Appropriations aide said.

A Republican majority could also clash with the administration and congressional Democrats on some policy issues, including the fate of the U.S. military's detention facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, and the suspected terrorists it holds and the implementation of an anticipated repeal of the 1993 law banning openly gay individuals from serving in the military.

There could also be some structural changes to the committees. For instance, House Armed Services Committee Republicans could move to abolish the oversight and investigations subcommittee that Skelton created when he assumed his chairmanship in 2007. Republicans abolished the subcommittee in 1995.

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