House Republicans passed over Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland this afternoon in choosing the new top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
The powerful post of ranking Republican went, instead, to Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, who came to Congress the same year as Bartlett but is a more junior member of the committee.
The closed-door decision was a vote of no confidence in Bartlett by House Republican leaders, who usually follow seniority in assigning top committee positions.
Bartlett reacted bitterly to the defeat.
"Not for the first time, big state and big money politics trumped experience, independent judgment and dedication to the legislative work of a committee," the western Maryland congressman said in a statement. "My priorities are unchanged. I remain focused and committed to protecting our country and our men and women in uniform."
Bartlett's complaint about "big money" was a reference to House Minority Leader John Boehner's history of promoting junior House members who have raised more money for the party over those with more seniority, said Lisa Wright, a Bartlett aide.
One House Republican insider said Bartlett was never a serious contender in the three-way contest. The western Maryland representative is regarded as eccentric by colleagues, he said, and has not always been in step with his party on key national security issues in recent years.
The congressman from Frederick was one of just seven Republicans to oppose a 2006 measure, supported by the Bush administration and passed by the Republican-led Congress, that allowed the U.S. to suspend habeas corpus rights for detainees.
Bartlett began his campaign for the committee leadership job last week, after Democratic President Barack Obama unexpectedly chose Republican Rep. John McHugh of New York to be the next Secretary of the Army.
McHugh was the top-ranking Republican on Armed Services, a position that controls a number of committee perks and is a high-profile perch for a member of the loyal opposition.
Based on seniority, Bartlett was next in line to McHugh and the Marylander based his case on the seniority issue.
In a statement last week, Bartlett said: "I have great confidence that the House Republican Leader John Boehner and my other colleagues will recognize the importance of ensuring continuity and pay close attention to my 17 years on the House Armed Services Committee and my leadership the last six and a half years, as Chairman or Ranking Member of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee and the Air and Land Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee."
Seniority, however, did not turn out to be the controlling factor.
Two other Republicans competed for the job--McKeon and Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas. McKeon is currently the top-ranking Republican on a less prestigious panel, Education and Labor, and like Thornberry, a member of Armed Services for 14 years, three less than Bartlett.
The three candidates delivered pitches for the job this afternoon at a closed session of the 27-member House Republican Steering Committee, which is controlled by Boehner and his top leadership team.
Thornberry's main argument revolved around his more active role as a member of Armed Services (in contrast to McKeon), his opposition to earmarking (in contrast to McKeon and Bartlett) and his contention that he would be the most effective Republican advocate on defense issues.
Bartlett, 83, is the oldest member of the Maryland congressional delegation. He is also the lone Republican.
He's already said he'll seek another term from his western Maryland district next year. First elected in 1992, Bartlett is expected to have little trouble fending off a Democratic challenge.