Near End of Term on House Panel, GOP's Thomas Weighs Retirement

Times Staff Writers

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), one of the most influential members of the California delegation in Congress, is holding a news conference Monday to announce whether he will run for reelection this year amid predictions the 14-term congressman will retire.

Speculation is widespread that Thomas may leave Congress because, under House rules setting term limits for committee chairmen, this year is the last he can serve as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

But GOP leaders are expected to put heavy pressure on Thomas to remain in Congress. They are hoping to keep congressional retirements to a minimum to avoid contested House races in a crucial election year -- and to avoid the perception that scandals and other problems are driving Republicans from office.

"There will be a full-court press to talk him out of it," said a source close to Thomas who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing Thomas' plans in advance of the announcement.

Republicans are confident that they could retain control of Thomas' House seat, a solidly Republican Bakersfield-based district that voted heavily for President Bush. Carl Forti, spokesman for the House GOP campaign committee, said he did not know Thomas' plans. But if he retires, Forti said, "we're not going to have any trouble holding the seat."

The bigger effect on the GOP would come from the loss of an exceptionally strong and savvy leader of the Ways and Means Committee, and of an influential figure in the councils of House Republicans.

As Ways and Means chairman, Thomas has exercised sway over tax, health, trade and welfare policy. It has put him at the forefront of pushing Bush's major domestic policy initiatives such as his tax cuts, Medicare prescription drug benefit and free-trade pacts. While he has been a party loyalist and an important Bush ally, Thomas has been a strong enough power-broker to stand up to the White House on such issues as Bush's 2003 proposal to cut taxes on dividend income, which was substantially altered before being approved by Congress.

"If Thomas goes, the House loses an intellectual heavyweight," said a senior House GOP leadership aide. "He is widely regarded as the brain of the Republican conference."

Many expect him to be succeeded as Ways and Means chairman by a protege, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who has had the politically delicate job of heading the Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing Social Security while Bush was trying to revamp the program last year.

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