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Republican Shays Dangles Retirement

The threat by veteran Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) to retire next year unless he is granted a ranking committee assignment poses a new dilemma for GOP party leaders who already are struggling to avert widespread losses in the 2008 congressional elections.

Shays, a prominent maverick who survived an anti-war backlash in his southwestern Connecticut district last year, appeared to issue an ultimatum to House GOP leaders last week according to a Hartford Courant report: Promise me the ranking seat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2009 or I'm retiring.

Shays, 61, has never been the most predictable member of the House Republican Conference. His willingness to buck party orthodoxy and outspokenness on issues like campaign finance reform has at times rubbed his colleagues the wrong way but may also be the secret to his re-election victories in an evenly divided congressional district. Shays is quoted in the Hartford Courant piece as pledging that if GOP leaders deny him the post he is "absolutely not going to run." If he is promised the post and ultimately gets passed over in 2009, Shays said he will resign from Congress.

Shays knows that he may be the only Republican who can hold Connecticut's 4th congressional district, which went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 by six percentage points and for then Vice President Al Gore by 10 points four years earlier. He also knows that Republican strategists are worried about the number of retirements in vulnerable seats (Minnesota's 3rd district, Arizona's 1st district, Ohio's 15th district and soon Virginia's 11th district) and need to try and keep members like him happy to avoid more vulnerable open seats. Given the House Republicans' troubles, why not ask for what you want up front? As Shays's chief of staff Betsy Hawkings said: "He wants to be honest and frank with folks."

But Hawkings insisted that in spelling out his requirements, Shays was simply responding to a question posed by a reporter and that his comments did not amount to any sort of threat. "He has not made a threat and he has not issued an ultimatum," she said. "He is not planning or threatening to retire. He wants to do the job he was elected to do."

Why then would Shays make a bid for another term contingent on being promised the ranking committee seat by the House GOP leadership, which makes the assignments? Because he is concerned that if left unresolved, the matter would serve as a distraction as he wages what is again expected to be a competitive race against Greenwich Democratic Chair Jim Himes, according to Hawkings. Shays believes that the race for the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship forced Reps. Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Clay Shaw (Fla.) -- both candidates for that post -- to run two races simultaneously. Both Johnson and Shaw lost their bids for re-election in 2006 -- the year the Democrats were swept back into power.

Shays is employing an interesting strategy that seems like a quid pro quo no matter how Hawkings tries to spin it. History also provides some context for why Shays would be so blunt about his future in Congress. In 2003, he was passed over for the chairmanship of the committee. Rep Tom Davis (R-Va.) leapfrogged over Shays. Davis was less senior than Shays on the committee but had done yeoman's work (in the eyes of the leadership) as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2000 and 2002.

Will Shays' strategy work? Maybe.

Hawkings said he has had "good response" from the Members he has talked to since making his comments. But, there are clearly some within the leadership who have taken umbrage with Shays' approach. "Congressman Shays is a valuable member of the House Republican Conference but this sets a dangerous precedent," said one House Republican leadership aide granted anonymity to speak candidly about the matter. "Shays brings his valuable and critical insight to the Government Reform Committee, but leadership must work to balance his desires with that of the entire Conference." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The Shays situation could be the beginning of a trip down a slippery slope for House Republicans. Out of the majority for the first time in a decade and faced with a difficult national political environment, there are a numbers of GOP Members who may be on the fence about running for re-election next fall. If House Republicans accede to Shays' wishes, you can bet any number of other members in potentially vulnerable districts will be right behind him asking for a plum committee assignment or some other goodie in exchange for a vow to run again.

Of course if GOP leaders deny Shays' request, he could well make good on his pledge to bow out -- creating another major problem for the party in 2008.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 19, 2007; 4:25 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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