In November of 2001, after being passed over for the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Marge Roukema (R.-N.J.) announced she would not seek re-election the following year. There was also a strong hint that the Republican majority in the House would not accept a woman as chairman of a powerful committee (when, in truth, the case against Roukema had nothing to do with her being male or female but a decidedly liberal Republican).
Ten months away from House Republicans (assuming they hold their majority in mid-term elections) selecting committee chairmen, signs are strong that one of the most powerful of committee gavels will go to a woman—a conservative who happens to be a woman. The woman is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and the 18-year-House veteran, by all accounts, is the front-runner to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) as chairman of the International Relations Committee. Although she has competition from two more senior colleagues—Dan Burton (Ind.) and Chris Smith (NJ)—most of my sources on Capitol Hill say that Ros-Lehtinen is the major front-runner for the position.
To be sure, old congressional hands say, the fact that Ros-Lehtinen is not only the first Cuban-American to serve in Congress but the daughter of a leader of the anti-Castro underground doesn’t hurt her. But the Miami lawmaker is much more than simply a Castro enemy or Cuban-American; as chairman of vice-chairman of almost every function subcommittee of the International Relations panel, she has been a player on virtually every major Republican foreign policy offensive to come down the pike. Ros-Lehtinen, for example, held hearings on the rise of Islamist extremism in Northern Africa more than a decade ago when she chaired the Africa subcommittee. As chairman of the Middle East and Central Asia Subcommittee since 2003, Ros-Lehtinen wrote the Iran Freedom Support Act, which included tougher measures against the Tehran regime and remuneration for former U.S. hostages.
“She’s gone out of her way to nurse an image that’s more than just an antagonist of Fidel Castro,” Rep. Mark Foley (R.-Fla.) told the Miami Herald, “To her credit, she’s been very effective and holds a valued opinion on a diverse range of topics.”
Foley is one of the seventeen Members of the Sunshine State’s Republican delegation in the House (aside from Ros-Lehtinen herself) to have endorsed the Miami lawmaker to be Hyde’s successor as chairman. In addition, outside groups ranging from the American Jewish Congress to the Lebanese American Council for Democracy have weighed in with strong letters of endorsement of Ros-Lehtinen for International Relations Committee chairman.
Under the former system of seniority determining who chairs a committee, Ros-Lehtinen would not be considered; Burton, who first came to the House in 1982, and Smith, a House Member since 1980 and International Relations Committee member for almost as long, would get “first dibs” on Hyde’s gavel. But seniority was essentially killed by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich when Republicans took control of the House in 1994. Since then, the 32-member Steering Committee of the House GOP Conference listens to presentations of congressmen wanting to chair committees and then cast weighted votes behind closed doors for the chairman. Quite often, the more senior Member has been passed over, as in 2000 when the Steering Committee chose the less-senior Rep. William Thomas (Cal.) to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee instead of the Member with the most seniority, then-Rep. Phil Crane (R.-Ill.).
Burton and Smith also carry baggage into the battle to succeed Hyde. Although strongly pro-life and a champion of freedom throughout the world, Smith (who was sacked as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in ’05 in favor of the more conservative Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana) has the same problem fellow New Jerseyan Roukema had in casting too many non-conservative votes. At a time when the House GOP Leadership was trying to hold the line on spending, Smith fought for measures increasing VA disability payments by $2.5 billion and adding more than $100 million in health care benefits for surviving widows of veterans—positions which undoubtedly helped bring about his loss of the Veterans Affairs’ gavel.
Burton was widely faulted in Congress and editorially for missing a critical International Relations Committee vote on the United Nations Reform Act in 2005. The measure, a crown jewel of Chairman Hyde, lost by one vote (24-to-23) for the Democratic substitute. At the time, Burton was playing golf at the Congressional Country Club with a group that included golfing great Vijay Singh. As one Member of the International Relations panel told the Capitol Hill periodical Roll Call, “This is it for Burton. Members of the Committee were really annoyed.” The Hoosier lawmaker also raised eyebrows when Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez revealed in an interview with ABC-TV’s Ted Koppel that he met privately with Burton.
Much happens that is unexpected when lawmakers meet behind closed doors and cast weighted votes secretly. For now, however, signs are strong that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will go on to make history—as the first Republican woman to chair a major House Committee in eight years and the first Cuban-American committee chairman in Congress.