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Temper Hinders Bid for Panel Chair

House: In race for Ways and Means post, William M. Thomas' gruff manner rankles some colleagues.


WASHINGTON — Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), in his bid to become the first Californian to chair one of the House's most important committees, faces a potentially tough problem: Bill Thomas.

A 22-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Thomas is widely respected for his intellect, commitment and expertise on the complex issue of Medicare--attributes that serve him well as he seeks to head the Ways and Means Committee. But he also possesses a gruff manner and quick temper--qualities that have turned off some of his colleagues.

As a result, Thomas is locked in a tight contest for the committee gavel with another panel member, Rep. Philip M. Crane of Illinois. First elected in 1969, Crane is the House's senior Republican--a point he emphasizes in his bid for the chairmanship.

Opponent Raises Issue

Crane also has not hesitated to interject the personality issue into the contest. In a recent letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) touting his candidacy, Crane made a none-too-veiled reference to Thomas, saying: "Never in my entire tenure in Congress have I allowed my temper to insult, berate or offend a colleague."

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) has offered himself as a compromise candidate, but he is considered a longshot.

The final decision will be made by the House's 221 GOP members shortly after the new session of Congress convenes Wednesday.

The battle is important because the Ways and Means Committee traditionally is ground zero in shaping key legislation. This year's session should be no exception--the issues at the top of the panel's agenda are likely to include tax cuts, a prescription drug plan for Medicare recipients and Social Security reform. Thomas said he also favors "fundamental tax reform."

The next chairman also can exert significant influence on issues of particular importance to California, such as a permanent extension of the research and development tax credit that is sought by the high-tech industry and a tax credit for film production in the United States to stem the flight of movie makers to other countries.

Thomas, 59, has served as chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, earning plaudits from Republicans and Democrats alike for his knowledge of arcane but politically important Medicare legislation. Last year, he was the architect of a GOP prescription drug plan for Medicare recipients. The legislation narrowly passed the House but died in the Senate in the face of opposition from the Clinton administration.

No Californian has ever headed the committee, whose chairmen have included former Reps. Wilbur D. Mills (D-Ark.), remembered for his night out in 1974 with ex-stripper Fanne Foxe, and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), recently pardoned by President Clinton after serving a prison term for mail fraud.

The current battle to succeed retiring Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) is part of a scramble for committee gavels set off by a six-year term limit on chairmanships adopted after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

Thomas has been circumspect about discussing his campaign. "This is an internal thing," he said. "I don't think it serves any useful purpose in trying to make this a public fight. The most important thing is that now that [former Texas Gov. George W.] Bush is in as president-elect, our job is to hit the ground running."

Crane, 70, has taken a more direct approach in his pitch for the job. He boasts, for instance, that he raised more than $2.5 million for GOP candidates and the party in the last two years. And he pledges to aggressively raise more money as chairman with the aim of increasing the GOP's narrow majority in the House.

Thomas has countered that he contributed more money to colleagues over a longer period. During a recent appearance at a closed-door meeting of House GOP leaders, he brought a list detailing more than $1.6 million in donations that he made to 70 fellow Republicans over the last three election cycles.

"If you want to look at future behavior, sometimes looking at prior behavior when it wasn't under the spotlight . . . is useful," he said.

Over the last two years, Thomas was the No. 1 House recipient of campaign funds from the health industry--taking in $344,139, according to the watchdog agency Center for Responsive Politics.

Ethics Questioned

Thomas routinely wins easy reelection in his solidly Republican district, which encompasses most of Kern and Tulare counties. In November, he won 72% of the vote, despite news stories earlier in the year alleging that he had a close personal relationship with a woman who also was a leading lobbyist for the health care industry.

"I have never traded a public responsibility for a personal one, and I never will," Thomas said in response to the story. He added: "Any personal failures of commitment or responsibility to my wife, family or friends are just that: personal."

Crane has had his own personal problems to overcome--he won praise from his colleagues last year for seeking treatment for alcohol dependency.

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