WASHINGTON, D.C. • A strong showing by Republicans in November could significantly boost the clout of local Rep. Buck McKeon, who is in line to become chair of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
McKeon, R-25th District, who represents Barstow in Washington, is a reliable ally of the Pentagon, a vocal advocate for defense spending and a firm supporter of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His elevation would mark a shift from the chairmanship of Rep. Ike Skelton, D-MO, who is hawkish by Democratic standards but has allowed social issues — such as a ban on hate crimes — to creep into defense bills overseen by the committee.
"When you become chairman there is much more you can do to see the things that will be done that will be beneficial for the defense of our nation," McKeon said in a recent conference call with reporters.
McKeon said winning control of the committee would also be "very beneficial for the district" which includes thousands of military families and employees.
McKeon is one of five senior California Republicans in line to become committee chairs if Republicans pick up the 39 seats needed to win a majority. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R- San Bernardino, could reclaim the post he had as chair of the Appropriations Committee five years ago.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the current GOP deputy whip, is almost certain to move up in the party's ranks.
As chairman, McKeon would oversee the annual defense budget, which amounted to $760 billion for fiscal year 2011.
Skelton and his staff declined to be interviewed for this story. The 33-year House veteran is facing a tough challenge in his home state of Missouri.
McKeon is the heavy favorite to win a 10th term this November in a rematch against his 2008 Democratic opponent, Jackie Conaway.
Conaway has questioned McKeon's competence and commitment to California defense workers, blaming him for the loss of 150,000 defense sector jobs.
"He allowed southern senators and congressmen to take Palmdale jobs" to states like Texas, Alabama and Georgia, said Bob Conaway, the candidate's husband and spokesman.
Conaway has pledged to advocate for new money for technology and intelligence gathering to reopen local military facilities and bring jobs back to the district. Conaway's committee assignments would not be determined until after she is elected.
Should the Republicans take the House this November, the priorities they would pursue on the Armed Services Committee would be drastically different than what the Democrats have been pushing.
"Congress should pass clean legislation — without the liberal social agenda items Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid have insisted on attaching in the run-up to the election," McKeon said.
McKeon specifically criticized Reid's attempt to insert language into the defense budget allowing undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to receive permanent resident status if they have lived in the country for the past five years and are high school graduates.
The DREAM Act, as the measure is known, "had nothing to do with how the troops operate," McKeon said.
The congressman said he would never "use the troops as pawns to pass social legislation" if elevated to the chairmanship.
A strong national defense is among the five commitments outlined this week in the Republican Party's "Pledge to America.''
The plan advocates more funds to missile defense, which McKeon said is necessary especially if "Iran is working to get nuclear weapons (and) when (North) Korea is … rattling the saber."
Regarding the region's strong military presence, McKeon said that he would do all he could to make sure that his constituents working in the defense industry would continue to have the opportunity to do so.
McKeon pledged his close working relationship with the committee's Democrats would not end if he becomes chair.
"The Armed Services Committee has a strong bipartisan tradition of providing our war fighters and their families with the resources and support they need — and that commitment will continue regardless of the outcome in November,'' he said.
McKeon served as chair of the House education committee for two years before Democrats won control of the chamber in 2006. Though he never served in the military, he has a reputation as a hard-line advocate of defense spending.
"I can provide a lot of good leadership and counsel in this regard,'' McKeon said. "That's why I was chosen as ranking member and why I will be chosen as chairman if we get the majority."
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