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Boehner offers committee seats to GOP challengers

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ATLANTA -- Deep in rural Georgia, the Republican who may become the next speaker of the U.S. House is playing let's-make-a-deal with voters.

Minority Leader John Boehner promised this week that if Southwest Georgia residents unseat Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, he will support placing GOP challenger Mike Keown on the House Agriculture Committee. It's a promise designed to get Keown votes in a red-soil district that harvests the nation's largest peanut and pecan crops.

As Republicans campaign to win a majority in Congress, Boehner has dangled similar promises in Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Hawaii, sometimes in districts where single economic interests like farming or defense dominate regional economies.

Such pledges are not unusual in an election year, but they contradict GOP messages about fiscal austerity.

For example, Boehner promised newly-elected Republican Rep. Charles Djou of Hawaii his support for a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. Democrats are making a special effort to unseat Djou after he won a special election in May when two Democrats on the ballot split the party's vote.

The committee's perk is the power to dole out money for projects in members' districts. But Djou criticizes the federal government for taxing and spending too much. In one breath, he said the committee seat would give Hawaii "a huge amount of influence."

In the next, he added: "We're spending too much money, and I think appropriations fits with what my goals and objectives are -- to fix this broken system in the United States Congress."

Boehner, of Ohio, generally offers his "full support" for putting a local candidate on a given committee, but he could effectively guarantee those assignments if Republicans take the House and he becomes speaker. The strategy may also allow him to call in favors from freshman lawmakers if the Republican whip, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, challenges him for the job.

Democrats are trying counteroffers. Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about getting Djou's Democratic opponent, Colleen Hanabusa, on the appropriations committee if she's elected. Inouye said Pelosi "didn't say no."

Boehner has promised two more agriculture committee slots to Republican candidates Rick Crawford of Arkansas and Randy Demmer of Minnesota and a seat on a veterans affairs committee to GOP candidate Ed Martin in Missouri.

He supports putting Republican challengers Austin Scott of Georgia and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri on the House Armed Services Committee. Hartzler is running against the committee's Democratic chairman, longtime Rep. Ike Skelton. The district includes Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Leonard Wood and the headquarters of the Missouri National Guard. Its population of military veterans is more than one-third greater than the national average.

Skelton has based his re-election campaign on his support for military troops and veterans and has questioned Hartzler's commitment to them in TV ads.

"He has emphasized how important the military is and his accomplishments, and I wanted as well to let them know my commitment to the military and representing them in Congress," Hartzler said.

Skelton questioned whether Boehner could follow through on his promise.

"The armed services committee now is a prime committee -- people want on it, both Democrats and Republicans -- and sometimes, when there is a vacancy, people stand in line," Skelton said.

In south Georgia, Boehner's tactic targets Bishop, who calls himself "The Peanut Congressman" to tout his support for the district's signature crop. He sits on an agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriation Committee, which doles out tax dollars that Bishop describes as American pie.

"I'm in a position not only to have a seat at the table, but to help slice that pie into portions worthy of the needs of the people of the 2nd Congressional District," he said at a recent debate.

But Boehner's strategy is helping Keown make that promise, too.

"We need to make sure we have someone on the agriculture committee who will support the farming community," Keown said.

Local residents like Isaiah Thomas, 68, a Bishop supporter who talks politics with his farming friends, have noted the offer.

"There are a whole lot of folks thinking about it," he said.