House Republicans last week chose Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), one of the key proponents of Medicare relief for healthcare providers, as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee.
Thomas, a moderate, beat veteran lawmaker Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.) in a hotly contested race to run the committee, which controls the $360 billion annual purse strings of Medicare and Medicaid and has jurisdiction over tax and Social Security issues.
Thomas, 59, served six years as chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, which has been instrumental in reversing Medicare payment limits included in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
Not surprisingly, many healthcare lobbyists were happy with the choice.
"We're very pleased, because (Thomas) knows our issues," said Herb Kuhn, vice president of advocacy at Premier, an alliance of not-for-profit hospitals. "He's the go-to guy on healthcare."
Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) will replace Thomas as leader of the Ways and Means health subcommittee. After Thomas, Johnson, 65, was the most senior Republican on the panel.
House Republicans elected Thomas and 16 other committee chairmen at a Republican caucus meeting in Washington last week. Other chairmen with jurisdiction over healthcare issues are:
* Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). Known in his home district as the "Swamp Fox," Tauzin, 57, will lead the House Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over some Medicare and Medicaid issues.
* Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.). Smith, 47, will take the helm of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees the $20 billion VA healthcare system.
* Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner, 51, will lead the Education and the Workforce Committee, which has claimed jurisdiction over managed-care reform.
* Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio). A former FBI agent, Oxley, 56, will run the new Financial Services Committee, formerly known as the Banking Committee, which will govern insurance issues.
Leaders of the Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, will not officially name committee chairmen until they have hammered out an agreement on how the split Senate will operate.
However, Republicans are guaranteed to lead all committees because the incoming vice president, Republican Dick Cheney, has the ability to cast tie-breaking votes.
Capitol Hill observers said they expect Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) to retain his chairmanship of the Senate Health and Education Committee, which has tackled managed-care reform.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has clashed with providers as chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, is expected to become chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which handles Medicare and Medicaid policy.