“I’m interested, should there be an occasion,” Johnson said. “I’ve earned consideration.”
With almost two years remaining in Thomas’s final term as chairman, most lobbyists and leadership staff consider Mc-Crery the clear front-runner, even though he ranks below Shaw, Johnson and Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) in seniority. That speculation does not dissuade Johnson from initiating her own bid for the chairmanship — “I’m well aware of the talk on K Street,” Johnson said.
The Connecticut congresswoman may forgo her candidacy, though, if it appears the Steering Committee would grant Shaw the chairman’s gavel. Shaw and Johnson are longtime friends with a history of working together, and two Republican aides with close ties to both lawmakers said there had been talk that Johnson would support Shaw’s campaign for the chairmanship.
“Clay has very strong credentials as a member of the committee,” Johnson said.
Gail Gitcho, Shaw’s spokeswoman, said only that the two lawmakers “have a great deal of respect for each other.”
Conjecture that McCrery was already assured of the post has been premature, Johnson said, because “the committee is well endowed with capable successors.”
Because the Ways and Means chairmanship is among the most demanding jobs on Capitol Hill, one in which the chairman must regularly reject proposals from members and lobbyists alike, ability is a major factor in determining the next chairman.
While Johnson and Shaw are both considered competent and dedicated, a number of lobbyists and Hill staffers did not consider either candidate to be forceful enough to corral committee members and hammer out complicated, often controversial, legislation. Of course, none of the three candidates would be expected to match Thomas, who has a well-deserved reputation for being authoritative and often antagonistic. There was a sense among many of the lobbyists interviewed, though, that McCrery has a more commanding personality than the other two.
Seniority has historically been the single greatest determining factor in deciding committee chairmanships, but in recent years the Steering Committee has also put greater weight on competence, loyalty and the member’s ability to raise money for the conference.
“I think that anyone who gets this job needs to demonstrate that he or she is a team player,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The one thing you can measure is fundraising for other members, particularly challengers.”
During the last election cycle, Johnson contributed $195,222 to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and her political action committee (PAC), Leadership Encouraging Excellence, contributed $57,500 to 20 Republican House candidates.
In comparison, McCrery contributed $379,000 to the NRCC through his campaign and PAC and another $469,500 directly to 83 Republican House candidates during the 2004 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Shaw contributed $315,000 to the NRCC and $21,000 to five Republican House candidates.
In addition to her fundraising, Johnson also visited 20 congressional districts during the last election cycle, including those of Reps. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.), Jon Porter (R-Nev.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), to support her colleagues in tight races.
A healthcare expert and former chair of the Health subcommittee, Johnson was one of the architects of the 2003 prescription-drug benefit for seniors and has taken the lead on a number of other healthcare issues, including a 1997 bill in support of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
If Johnson does enter the race, though, she will have to answer questions about her relatively liberal voting record on a number of social issues, such as abortion, gay rights and the environment. She was also one of four Republicans to vote against the permanent repeal of the estate tax in 2003.
If seniority becomes the deciding factor, the race would be Shaw’s to lose, forcing Johnson to decide between support for her friend and a shot at the chairmanship. In those circumstances, she would be expected to side with Shaw, said one Republican aide closely involved with the race.
“Clay is obviously in the driver’s seat,” said the aide, who is unaffiliated with Shaw. “[He] is the next chairman, unless something happens.”
Johnson and Shaw both represent Democratic-leaning districts and could face serious opponents during the 2006 election — a further challenge for each in a race for the chairmanship. State Sen. Ron Klein (D) has already announced that he will challenge Shaw, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently met with potential challengers to Johnson.
There is also the slight possibility that Thomas will seek a waiver to continue his chairmanship, but leadership aides quickly shot down that suggestion when it was floated in February 2004.
“Waivers are unlikely,” Norquist said, because they contradict the ideals of the Republican Revolution in 1994 and pass too much power along to committee chairmen. “The only extension has been the Rules Committee, which has been an extension of leadership.”