Updated at 4:50 p.m. on November 3, 2010. In what some have called a “doomsday scenario,” voters have ousted the most senior Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee in a major housecleaning that will dramatically reshape the structure of the powerful panel.
Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina and Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor of Mississippi — the first, second and fourth most senior Democrats on the committee — were all defeated Tuesday.
It also appears that the No. 3 Democrat, Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Solomon Ortiz, lost his race by about 800 votes. But the 14-term Democrat, who has long had a stronghold on his southern Texas district, has not yet conceded.
These old stalwarts have been a fixture in the top row of the Armed Services hearing room for a decade and have served as powerful, moderate voices on a committee that prides itself on bipartisan action.
Their losses will usher in a new class of senior Democrats on the panel at a critical time for the war in Afghanistan and for the Pentagon budget, both of which will receive intense scrutiny from lawmakers over the next several months.
Ortiz had long been thought to be the most likely and logical successor to Skelton. But if he loses reelection, it will open a race for ranking member of the full committee.
One possibility, a Democratic source said, is House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. Reyes’s candidacy will hinge on the final outcome of Ortiz’s race, as two Texas Democrats in the Hispanic Caucus would be unlikely to battle publicly for the same post.
Reyes also could bring with him some of his staff on the Intelligence Committee, which would result in significant job-shuffling within the Armed Services Committee, the source said. After Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, the committee retained much of its staff despite the switch in party control.
In a significant shift from Skelton’s leadership, Reyes as ranking member could be a huge boon for the Army on a committee that has long been skeptical of that service’s efforts to modernize its equipment and has often led efforts to slash funding for its key programs.
Reyes’s district includes Fort Bliss, the Army base where the service has tested many of its newest technologies. In May, the seven-term Democrat successfully fought to restore more than $100 million in cuts the committee made to several technologies the service is salvaging from the canceled Future Combat Systems program.
His spokesman, Vincent Perez, declined to discuss the lawmaker’s options. “At this point, it’s premature to speculate about future leadership roles,” Perez said in an e-mail to National Journal. “Congressman Ortiz’s race has not been called yet, and Chairman Reyes is hopeful his good friend will return for another term.”
Reyes may not be the only Democrat with eyes for the party’s top slot on the committee.
Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., would be next in seniority after Reyes and is considered by both parties to be a rising star on the committee. Smith’s race has not been called yet, but he is ahead. If Reyes is interested in the post, however, it would be difficult for Democrats to jump over a more senior Hispanic member to choose Smith for the job.
One Democratic aide said there have been rumblings that Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., could attempt to leapfrog several other members to claim Skelton’s old job. Andrews is in charge of the committee’s acquisition reform panel and has become a stronger voice on the committee in recent years.
If Andrews were to become ranking member, he could “hammer the Republicans but do it in a bipartisan way,” the aide said.
Andrews is clearly ambitious. In 2008, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in a divisive primary.
“If history is any indication, he does not shy from a challenge,” the aide said.
As Democrats weigh who will lead them on the committee in the next Congress, the shake-up for the committee’s membership did not stop at the top row. Several other Democratic incumbents — including Glenn Nye of Virginia, Jim Marshall of Georgia, and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire — also lost reelection.
Republicans will control the gavel in the next Congress, but the influx of a new class of Democrats on the committee could prove challenging.
“It doesn’t benefit us if there’s that much turnover” because it replaces Democrats on the committee Republicans have good relationships with, a GOP source said.
Who replaces them will be the question many in the Pentagon, the defense industry and Capitol Hill will be asking today and in the weeks to come.
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