WASHINGTON — Tulare Republican Devin Nunes need not be too covert in his campaign to become the next chairman of the House intelligence committee.
But he might need to call in some chits.
The 40-year-old conservative faces some potentially formidable competition, as ambitious GOP lawmakers eye the pending vacancy atop what's formally called the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It's a hot spot that's intensely private yet made for prime time.
And unlike some Capitol Hill leadership competitions, the contenders are vying for the support of only one man.
"The most important thing is, the speaker has to have a high confidence level in you," Nunes says. "He has to trust you."
If Republicans retain control of the House following the November elections, as appears likely, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will unilaterally select the next intelligence committee chairman. The current chairman, former FBI special agent Mike Rogers of Michigan, is retiring to become a radio talk show host.
New York's Peter King and Florida's Jeff Miller have also publicly voiced interest in the slot.
Nunes is in his sixth term. King, who turns 70 on Saturday, has served since 1993 and appears frequently on cable television, especially on Fox News. His name pops up 1,097 times when searched for on Fox News' website. Nunes' name appears 41 times.
Seniority, that old-school political virtue, doesn't matter much in this somewhat unique competition. Instead, a blend of party loyalty, policy chops, public presence and an intangible personal chemistry will mean the difference between the gavel and the back bench.
"I have a good relationship with the speaker," Nunes says. "He is one of my close personal friends."
Past candidates have learned just how important it is to have good relations with their party's leader.
Former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of Venice Beach, despite her seniority and a notably aggressive campaign, was bluntly passed over for the 2007 chairmanship by the House's top Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Harman is more centrist than the liberal Pelosi, but their relationship was complicated for many reasons beyond ideology.
Party fundraising provides one test for those wanting promotion, as both parties expect committee leaders to pitch in. In this, Nunes seems to have an edge.
Through his leadership political action committee, New PAC, Nunes has funneled more than $560,000 to fellow Republicans since 2009. He has made additional contributions through his own campaign committee.
King only established a leadership PAC three months ago. His American Leadership Now PAC hasn't yet reported any contributions to other Republicans.
Florida's Miller has contributed about $11,000 to fellow Republicans through his Advance the Majority PAC since 2009. In addition, King, Nunes and Miller have all contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars through their separate campaign treasuries to the National Republican Campaign Committee, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group.
"No one is going to be selected for a leadership position if you're not taking care of business on the political side," Nunes says. "I've checked that box."
King is the only one of the three with military experience, having served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War. None worked in the intelligence community prior to joining Congress.
The current 21-member House intelligence panel has 12 Republicans and nine Democrats. It meets, usually in secret, once or twice a week on Capitol Hill, in addition to sessions at intelligence community sites. Members read daily intelligence summaries skimmed from open sources, are privy to highly classified documents and travel to places often described, generically, as something like "Southeast Asia."
"It takes a substantial commitment of time," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat who serves on the committee. "The data flow is enormous, and the agencies are behemoths."
Oversight is one part of the job. On Wednesday, the committee summoned for the third time former CIA official Michael Morell to talk about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans.
Bipartisanship, though, often prevails during the committee's core work of authorizing budgets and policies for the 17 agencies of the intelligence community. Tellingly, the committee approved its last intelligence authorization bill last November by a voice vote. Democrats used their "minority views" section of the bill's report to praise rather than denounce the legislation.
"I have always been impressed by him," Schiff said of Nunes. "He works in a very bipartisan way."
Nunes says, "At the end of the day, I'm about policy, and the intelligence world is the pinnacle of policy."
Sizing up the field
A look at the three presumed front-runners for chairman of the House intelligence committee:
• Devin Nunes, 40, Tulare, sixth term, chairs the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
• Peter King, 69, Long Island, New York, 11th term, served as chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security until term limits forced him out. Last September, unexpectedly, King showed up in New Hampshire to declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. He is not considered a front-runner.
• Jeff Miller, 54, western panhandle of Florida, seventh term, chairs the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
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