WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Thursday chose Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) to head the powerful Ways and Means Committee, making the Californian a key player in the fight to push major elements of President-elect George W. Bush's agenda through a narrowly divided Congress.
Thomas, known for his mastery of complex matters such as Medicare but also for his occasional fits of temper, was one of about a dozen new committee chairmen installed by the House's GOP majority.
In choosing Thomas and others over more senior Republicans, GOP leaders set as their goal assembling a team that can move legislation through Congress and to the new president's desk.
A 22-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Thomas is the first Californian to chair the Ways and Means panel. The committee could prove crucial to the success of Bush's presidency, given that it will serve as a testing ground for his sweeping tax-cut plan and his proposals to reform Medicare and Social Security.
Thomas said that he received a congratulatory call from Bush after his selection.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) supported Thomas, rebuffing the bid of Rep. Philip M. Crane, a fellow Illinois Republican and the senior GOP House member. Other Illinois Republicans pressured Hastert to back Crane, arguing that their home state would be sure to benefit. But, through a spokesman, Hastert said that he supported Thomas because of the California lawmaker's "proven record of being able to get things done."
Though Crane is more conservative than Thomas, political analysts downplayed ideology as a factor in the selection.
"It's competence over ideology," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. Stanley E. Collender, a federal budget expert with the Fleishman-Hillard government relations and communications firm, added that, given the narrow GOP majority in the House, "it's probably the time to call for a master legislator, and Thomas has proven his skill."
Thomas succeeds former Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) at the committee's helm. Archer decided to retire from Congress, but he would have been forced from the post anyway because of the GOP's pledge when it took control of the House in the 1994 elections to impose a six-year limit on chairmanships.
Term limits also brought to an end the reign of several high-profile chairmen, such as Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who as head of the Judiciary Committee oversaw the impeachment of President Clinton, and Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation Committee. Shuster, who sought in vain to retain his post, announced Thursday that he will retire from Congress at the end of this month.
Hyde will now take the gavel of the International Relations Committee. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) will become chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Succeeding Shuster is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who had headed the Resources Committee.
The fierce battle between Thomas and Crane drew the most attention because the panel will be ground zero for some of the most important legislative battles in the new Congress.
Thomas, 59, is a former political science professor at Bakersfield Community College who was first elected to the House in 1978.
As chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee under Archer, Thomas had been active last year in pushing through the House a prescription drug plan for Medicare recipients, a measure that died in the Senate but is expected to be revived in the next few months.
"Bill works very hard. He's very smart. And he's demonstrated over a long period of time that he's willing to do the job," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) called Thomas' selection a "huge plum for California."
But Thomas' prickly personality had caused the outcome of his contest with Crane to remain in doubt.
Said Thomas E. Mann, an analyst at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington: "Thomas combines real knowledge of the important issues before the committee and in particular issues surrounding Medicare with a somewhat quirky and volatile personality."
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the committee's top Democrat, said that he and Thomas have developed a "mutual respect and friendship that will serve the committee well."
Rangel praised Thomas as one of the House's hardest working legislators and added: "While we have disagreed many times, I deeply respect his intellect and ability as a leader. I know that he understands that, to get things done, he will need to reach out to Democrats and Republicans alike."
Thomas' selection puts Californians in two of the top committee posts. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who became chairman of the Rules Committee two years ago, will continue to head that panel.
One of the first issues the Ways and Means Committee is expected to confront is Bush's call for a $1.3-trillion tax cut over 10 years. The plan includes an across-the-board reduction in income tax rates.