(CNSNews.com) - They have a combined 74 years experience in the U.S. House of Representatives. All three are Republicans, who already chair powerful subcommittees. And all three are trying to get a promotion, in order to chair the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful in Congress with jurisdiction over tax cuts, Social Security reform and a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
The competition is between Illinois' Phil Crane, a 32-year veteran of Capitol Hill, California's Bill Thomas, who's been in the House for 22 years and Florida's Clay Shaw, whose 20-year Congressional career nearly ended in November. Shaw was able to squeak out victory over his Democratic challenger, but not before a recount had to be conducted.
A GOP steering committee, composed of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and 24 other House Republicans, is meeting with the three candidates this week and will eventually make a recommendation to the full Republican membership on January 4th, at the beginning of the 107th Congress.
Crane is the current Trade subcommittee chairman of Ways and Means, who has "a long history of working on behalf of the party and has been one of the stalwarts in actually making the modern Republican party the majority party it is today," according to Bryce Dustman, Crane's communications director.
Crane counts as his proudest legislative accomplishments in the 106th Congress trade bills concerning Africa, Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China, and the European Union.
Thomas chairs the Health subcommittee of Ways and Means, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, health research, health insurance premiums and other health care issues.
He is "eminently qualified on all fronts" to serve as chairman of the full committee, according to his communications director, Jason Poblete, but Thomas and his staff refuse to elaborate, either about the competition under way or the issues that would confront a new chairman.
"Mr. Thomas met with the steering committee [Wednesday] afternoon," Poblete said.
"We felt that this issue and the future of our [Republican] conference will be determined inside the conference and not in the media. Chairman Thomas has made that a promise to his colleagues and he wants to keep to that promise."
Whatever tension may exist between Thomas and Crane over their competition appears not to be personal. The two men were seen hugging each other before a Thursday news conference. Thomas and Crane were on hand to support the efforts of a new coalition of tax reform advocates.
Shaw, the Social Security subcommittee chairman, was delayed in pursuing his ambitions for the Ways and Means chair due to his narrowly won re-election campaign. Now that his office is secured, he plans to present four legislative priorities to the steering committee: Social Security reform, debt repayment, Medicare prescription drug benefits and tax cuts.
"Legislatively, as chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, he realizes more than anyone the need to work on that," said Donna Boyer, Shaw's press secretary. Shaw crafted a Social Security reform plan in the 106th Congress along with Archer that sought to establish retirement accounts for American workers.
Hastert and Armey are the main decision-makers on the steering committee, wielding a total of seven votes between them, compared to one vote each for other members. Factoring into their decision will be the candidates' legislative priorities, fundraising prowess and ability to forge bipartisan consensus on important issues.
"I expect that no matter who is chairman, we'll do the lockbox for the Social Security trust fund," Boyer added. "That's the first step -- protecting those funds," she said.
"But there's a greater issue of paying down the national debt. The lockbox [resolution] says that the [Social Security] trust fund money cannot be used for any government spending; it can only be used to save Social Security or pay down the debt," Boyer said.
As for committee Democrats, the ranking minority member's spokesman said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) "has very good personal relationships" with Thomas, Crane and Shaw and has "no concern here that relations would shut down."
"He worked very closely with Crane on trade issues," said spokesman Dan Maffei. "In fact, the African Growth and Opportunity Act...was almost completely a joint venture," he said. Regarding Shaw, "their personal friendship is well known in the Capitol," he continued. "Rangel has gotten along fine [with Thomas, too,] and they've always had periodic conversations on the floor on various issues, [such as] the China trade issue," said Maffei.
"The question more becomes will any of them be willing to compromise?" said Maffei. "Mr. Rangel has put out in the last year [proposals for] estate tax relief proposals, marriage penalty relief, a school construction bill that was totally bipartisan with Nancy Johnson and Clay Shaw [as] cosponsors; [these were] things that Democrats felt were reaching out to Republicans," said Maffei.
"There was no willingness to compromise, but this didn't come from the committee leadership, it came from [Republican Whip Tom] DeLay and Armey," Maffei said.