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A Three-Horse Race Emerges for HASC Gavel

Thornberry Seen as Odds-On Favorite

Jan. 26, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas
HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas ()
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WASHINGTON — The race for the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) gavel is underway, and sources see the panel’s vice chairman as the odds-on favorite despite an expected challenge from an up-and-coming rival.

Sources expect the contest to succeed the retiring Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., to be a three-horse race, with HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, taking on panel members Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Randy Forbes, R-Va.

Though nearly a year remains before the House Republican Steering Committee hears from each candidate and picks a new chairman, proponents of each member already are busy highlighting their candidate’s strengths.

Spokespersons for Thornberry, Turner and Forbes have made clear each is planning or at least seriously mulling a run.

The jockeying was set off Jan. 16, when McKeon announced he will not seek a 12th term. Even before the California Republican addressed reporters that morning, the handicapping of the field to secure the biggest chair on the HASC dais was underway.

The next chairman will inherit several major policy and budget matters that likely will remain unresolved when McKeon hangs up his member pin and voting card.

Those include what to do about the remaining seven years of sequestration cuts, a slew of troubled and expensive new-start weapon programs that will need close oversight, a potential US force of thousands in Afghanistan, an ever-changing al-Qaida threat and an emerging China. And the list does not stop there, also covering terrorist suspect detainee policy, the future of the armed drone program and more.

Conversations with several sources who have ties to the House Republican caucus and the House Armed Services Committee conjure up an image of the board above the betting window at Churchill Downs a few days before the Kentucky Derby.

Thornberry is the field’s Honor Code, the — very — early odds-on favorite to win the 2014 Derby at 6-1. “He’s lost to Buck by a single vote and has been right by Buck’s side for six years,” one GOP House aide said.

Turner is viewed as his top competitor, but even those impressed by the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee head believe he is mostly interested in setting himself up to succeed Thornberry — meaning he most resembles a slew of Derby possibilities now slotted at 50-1 to 100-1. Then there is Forbes, the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee chairman and the early longshot, who sources say likely has 200-1 or worse odds.

Thornberry, with a year to go before the decision is made, has a pedigree and training that make him seem unbeatable to many handicappers.

His proponents say his one high-profile loss — to McKeon for the same gavel — made him better. Sources say Thornberry began raising more money for GOP members and candidates, which they claim was one of the main areas in which McKeon had an advantage.

“This really is Thornberry’s to lose. He’s the guy,” said one defense industry lobbyist with ties to House GOP caucus. “There’s no reason to skip him — and there’s got to be a reason. He’s so knowledgeable of the issues. He blew away the Steering Committee last time.”

A Thornberry aide said he “plans to make his case to the [House Republican] steering committee when the time comes.” The aide said Thornberry believes his “case ... is very strong.”

So does McKeon, who has broken with precedent by endorsing Thornberry to take the gavel next January. Congressional and other sources said it is exceedingly rare for an outgoing committee chairman to publicly endorse another member to succeed him.

Count among them one Turner aide, who was quick to note his boss has been urged to run by folks from across the defense-industrial-congressional complex.

“Members from across the Republican spectrum — both junior and senior members — have come up to Mr. Turner and encouraged him to do this,” the Turner aide said. “It’s all gamut of people: it’s other members, it’s industry people, and it’s Pentagon people.”

The aide noted Turner often is among the most active panel members when HASC crafts its annual Pentagon policy bill, offering numerous amendments on a list of issues.

Several sources believe Turner’s strategy is a long-play that acknowledges Thornberry is well-positioned to take the gavel, meaning Turner is angling to succeed Thornberry when his potential chairmanship ends.

Some in Washington see Turner as a rising star inside the House GOP caucus, with several current and former aides saying he has become one of the party’s most articulate and forceful critics of the Obama administration.

The Turner aide did not directly address those predictions, but he did note “a lot of members don’t run for chairman just once — that’s the case on a lot of committees.”

Sources see Forbes as a long-shot. But because he is seen as a hard worker and knowledgeable about defense and national security issues, none ruled out the chance the dark horse might pull the upset.

The industry lobbyist said some Steering Committee members are annoyed Forbes is pushing the National Republican Congressional Committee, House GOP leaders and his fellow members to withhold campaign cash from gay candidates.

“Forbes is just taking himself out of the [HASC] race with this stuff,” the defense lobbyist said.

Still, a Forbes aide signaled he is considering jumping into the race.

“Congressman Forbes considers his work on the Armed Services Committee to be the most rewarding of his 12 years in Congress,” the Forbes aide said. “When the time is right to choose a new HASC chairman, [he] looks forward to discussing his record of bipartisan accomplishment with his House Republican colleagues. In the meantime, he continues to focus on his chairmanship of the Seapower subcommittee and his leadership of the bipartisan Asia-Pacific Security Series.” ■

Email: jbennett@defensenews.com.

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