GOP Congressman Tom Petri of Fond du Lac on Tuesday moved one step closer to a long-denied ranking member slot on a congressional committee.
But given his record of pursuing bipartisan legislative compromises at the expense of party-line loyalty, insiders say it isn't certain Petri would win the nod as top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee if he chose to pursue it.
The House Republican Steering Committee, an arm of the GOP leadership, voted Tuesday afternoon to appoint Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., as ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, filling a vacancy. To do that, McKeon would have to relinquish his slot as ranking member on Education and Labor, where Petri ranks second in seniority.
However, Petri's substantial legislative accomplishments -- frequently achieved in collaboration with Democrats -- haven't endeared him to the conservatives who run the House GOP and who have the most important say in who gets the plum post.
A spokesman for Petri told a WisPolitics.com correspondent after the vote that Petri hasn't yet determined what he'll do, though most observers expect him to compete for the Education and Labor slot. He's taken a leading role on the committee on a variety of education issues, notably direct lending for student loans, a stance that President Obama has more recently championed.
Either Petri or fellow moderate Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, the fourth-ranking Republican on the panel, would be unacceptable to many in the GOP conference, given their willingness to support increases in federal spending. Education and Labor has historically been a locus for bitter ideological battles, and many conservatives feel a lawmaker like Petri might be tempted to compromise rather than aggressively take on the Democrats.
The third-ranking Republican on Education and Labor, Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra is considered unlikely to give up his spot as ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, leaving fifth-ranking Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana as a possible conservative rival.
Twice before, Petri has been the most senior Republican on a committee yet been passed over for the top GOP slot. After the 2000 elections, the fourth-ranking Republican on Education and Labor -- Ohio Congressman John Boehner, now the House minority leader -- leapfrogged Petri to take the committee chairmanship, a move that led Petri's office to decry a "purge of moderate Republicans."
Then, after the 2006 election, Petri was poised to take over the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's ranking slot, but Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., won the leadership's nod instead.
"He is an idea guy, very thoughtful and decent and smart," said Norm Ornstein, a Congress-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute. "His reward has been to be bypassed regularly for top posts in the areas where he could make the best and most constructive contributions. It says volumes about the current state of the Republican Party, and especially the House Republicans, that instead of promoting guys like Petri, who would have a broad appeal and show an image of a party that has ideas, it promotes guys like" Reps. Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, both of whom come from the party's right wing.
In comments that will win Petri no friends in the GOP conference, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., who chairs an aviation subcommittee on which Petri serves as the ranking Republican, told WisPolitics.com that his Republican colleague was "a true partner" and "a joy to work with."
"If we had more members like Tom Petri in Congress, we would have less political bickering and would get more results," Costello said. While the two men differed over a number of labor-related provisions in a recent FAA reauthorization bill, Costello said Petri "was very civil, stated his disagreements, held firmly to them and made very clear he would vote against those provisions."
In an interview Monday, before the steering committee vote was taken, Petri said he has no regrets for the course he's taken.
"I've attempted to be as effective as I can be," Petri said. "I guess you could argue that if you do what you're told, you're given more responsible positions and then you can be more effective. But I've tried to play it straight. Other people define effectiveness as beating the other team, but I define effectiveness as getting something constructive done."
Republican restlessness extends to the electoral realm as well. With his voting record, Petri is always at risk of a primary challenge from the right, political watchers say, although he doesn't yet appear to have a significant opponent for 2010.
"Petri has somewhat of a non-partisan persona at home, which is why he might be a more intriguing target in a primary than a general election," said David Wasserman, who handicaps House races for the Cook Political Report. "But after three decades in the House, he is also so revered that he had no primary opposition in 2008 after voting against the Iraq troop surge. At this rate, any primary challenger would more likely be angling for the seat in case Petri retires than wrangling the seat away from him."
It also helps that Petri usually has a big campaign warchest -- at the end of March, his campaign committee reported $899,575 cash on hand.
Petri is the third-ranking Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is charged with writing a major surface-transportation reauthorization bill. He's also the top Republican on the panel's aviation subcommittee, which is trying to push through a landmark Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.
"I've known him for over 20 years, and he is rock-solid on transportation issues," said Todd Hauptli, senior executive vice president at the American Association of Airport Executives. "When you're in the minority in the House of Representatives, you need to figure out how to work well with other people to get the things you want."
Matt Jeanneret, a spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, concurs, saying, "Rep. Petri is not constrained by political ideology. He has been a champion for the need to boost federal transportation investments in all modes, and he believes in doing it in a fiscally responsible way. I wish we had more Petris in the House."
Even the National Education Association -- the giant teachers' union -- has only nice things to say about Petri.
"He's worked really well with the NEA. We've had really good access to him," said Randall Moody, the NEA's chief lobbyist. "There's great overlap between our views and Petri's. We don't always agree, but the key is the opportunity to make our case."
Petri also wins plaudits for how he handled his late-career shift from surface transportation to aviation.
"Some people questioned initially how quickly Petri would acclimate to aviation policy after being a surface transportation expert, but I think he's proven himself to be a very quick study, especially in air traffic control modernization," said independent aviation lobbyist Mike Korens.
Petri, 69, earned both undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia and won a special election to the House in 1979. In Congress, he chaired the Transportation subcommittee responsible for surface transportation between 1995 and 2006, giving him an influential perch for shaping the massive highway reauthorization that is produced every couple of years.
The existing highway bill expires in September, and lawmakers envision a successor potentially as big as $450 billion. But financing the bill will be an enormous problem. The trust fund that is made up of tax revenue from gasoline and other transportation-related items has run out for two straight years, due to decreased driving during a recession as well as high gas prices. This means that lawmakers would have to dig into general revenues or raise taxes to fund needed transportation priorities -- neither of which is an appealing option.
Complicating matters further is the crowded congressional schedule, which has pushed off action at least past July 4. The trust fund's dire fiscal straits mean that even putting together a stopgap extension will be a challenge, Petri said.
The measure "has tremendous problems on the funding side," Petri said. "Normally it's not unusual to have a continuing resolution if you're not on schedule, but if we run out of money, doing a 'CR' without addressing at least some of the funding issues will be impossible."
Meanwhile, the FAA bill recently cleared the House for a second time in two Congresses but has yet to be approved in committee in the Senate. On the FAA bill, Petri joined with other committee leaders in backing higher passenger facility charges -- taxes on air travelers that goes for improvements to airports and other infrastructure. Traditionally, airports back such charges while airlines oppose them, Hauptli said.
"I'm optimistic that the FAA bill will at some point get to conference," Petri said, though he wasn't able to suggest a time frame.
As with other members of the Transportation panel, Petri is especially focused on ensuring aid for projects important to his state. These include the Medical Center interchange in southeastern Wisconsin and the addition of lanes to I-94 that runs from Milwaukee to the Illinois border. He's also looking to improve the rail infrastructure around Chicago, to relieve a bottleneck that sometimes forces cargo to be temporarily shifted from rail to tractor-trailer and back again.
"It takes as long for a boxcar to get through Chicago as it does to get from Los Angeles to Chicago," Petri said. "That makes a big difference for Wisconsin. We could piggyback more by rail if we could get predictable services."
Tom Howells, president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, said he and others in the state are glad to have Petri as someone who can reach across party lines to get work done.
"One of the things we've told him and our other delegation members is that we always appreciate the bipartisan efforts of our delegation on transportation," Howells said.