The biggest surprise in the late-night session was the selection of Rep. Richard W. Pombo of Tracy, a rancher and property rights advocate who jumped over more senior members to be selected chairman of the Resources Committee, which is expected to be a battleground for President Bush's environmental initiatives.
Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, a graduate of Harvard's business and law schools, was selected to head a panel that will oversee the newly created Department of Homeland Security. And Rep. Duncan Hunter, an outspoken defense hawk from the San Diego area, was, as expected, handed the gavel of the Armed Services Committee.
They join two other Californians who retained chairs: Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier of San Dimas and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of Bakersfield. That gives the state -- one that snubbed Bush in the 2000 presidential election -- more committee chairmen in the House than any other state. That should put California in a better position to secure federal dollars and wield greater influence in shaping laws, experts say.
The chairmen will be key players in a Congress eager to advance Bush's agenda -- from his proposed tax cuts to his efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling and expedite the thinning of national forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.
In one of the most fiercely contested races, Pombo, who turned 42 Wednesday, took advantage of his ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to take over the Resources Committee.
The panel oversees millions of acres of national forests, parks and other federal land, including the nation's great symbols and treasures -- from the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty. This year, the panel is to confront such issues as resolving water disputes in the West.
"I will work with all of my colleagues on the Resources Committee to enact legislation of which we can all be proud," Pombo said after the vote. "There are too many areas of agreement for us to get bogged down in partisan battles."
Though little known outside his district, Pombo -- who wears cowboy boots and is often pictured in a cowboy hat -- is beloved by property rights groups and reviled by environmental organizations for efforts to rewrite the Endangered Species Act.
"Pombo has been one of the most vehemently anti-environment voices in Congress," said Susan Holmes of Earthjustice, a legal arm of the environmental movement. "His environmental voting record has consistently been at the bottom of the barrel." The League of Conservation Voters said he voted in line with its positions only 9% of the time in the 107th Congress.
Pombo has said he was driven to run for public office, winning a seat on the Tracy City Council in 1990, after "some bureaucrats" decided that an abandoned railroad right-of-way that ran through his property should be used as a recreational trail but that "it was our responsibility to build fences to protect people from our cattle and to clean up the litter that hikers left."
Western lawmakers pushed hard to make one of their own the chairman; roughly half of the land in the West is owned by the federal government and comes under the panel's jurisdiction. But Colorado lawmakers expressed concern that a Californian at the helm of the committee overseeing water policy could give the state an unfair advantage in the allocation of Colorado River water.
And Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) sought to put any concerns of Western states at ease. "I can tell you that no other member has supported the issues near and dear to Western Republicans as I have," he said in a letter to GOP lawmakers.
Based on seniority, the Resources Committee chair would have gone to Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), who was next in line to succeed Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah), who retired. But Saxton, facing opposition from conservatives upset about his support from the Sierra Club and his opposition to drilling in the Arctic refuge, bowed out and accepted an appointment to lead a new antiterrorism sub-panel.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who was next in line in seniority, also was unsuccessful in his bid for the chairmanship.
The jockeying for the gavels -- all conducted behind closed doors to avoid any public disagreements in the GOP ranks -- was set off by the Republican pledge when it took control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections to impose a six-year limit on chairmen. Seniority, while still a key factor in selecting chairs, is no longer the only one. Personality and how much money one raises for fellow party members are considerations too.
Cox originally campaigned for chairman of the Government Reform Committee, but once he heard about the Select Committee on Homeland Security, he said he approached House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) about the appointment.
"When Denny made his speech on opening day, he described the task of overseeing the extensive reorganization of the executive branch as the most significant challenge facing the 108th Congress," Cox said.
Cox's decision to accept the Homeland Security gavel cleared the way for Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) to lead the Government Reform Committee.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) was named chairman of the Agriculture Committee, an important committee for California because of the state's $27-billion agriculture industry.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.