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House lawmaker to forgo Senate bid in hope of claiming Ways and Means gavel

Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., said he’s running for re-election in the House, where he will join a three-way race for the top GOP seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., speaks at the House GOP news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28, 2021.
Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., speaks at the House GOP news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., is telling colleagues he wants to be the next chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, a move that will require him to forgo what would be a crowded GOP primary for a rare open Senate seat.

Smith, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, is expected to post a video Wednesday announcing that he’s seeking a sixth term representing his southeastern Missouri House district.

"My colleagues put me in a position to lead our conference at the Budget Committee, and I think they have been happy with that choice," Smith told NBC News, pointing to his efforts to oppose President Joe Biden's Covid relief and Build Back Better packages.

"I am ready to be the next Republican chair of Ways and Means," he said.

The decision will pit Smith against two more senior GOP members of the Ways and Means Committee — Vern Buchanan of Florida and Adrian Smith of Nebraska — who already are vying to be chairman if Republicans win back the House in the November midterm elections.

The top Ways and Means post is one of the most powerful and coveted jobs in Congress. The committee has jurisdiction over all taxation, tariff and trade issues, as well as Social Security, Medicare and welfare programs.

Because of a pair of key departures from the House, a competitive race to lead the committee is taking shape.

Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on Ways and Means, who led the committee during the passage of the 2017 tax reform bill, is retiring after 13 terms. And the lawmaker who was favored to succeed him, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., resigned from Congress to become CEO of former President Donald Trump’s new media company.

Jason Smith has reached out to Brady about the job; Brady declined to comment Tuesday about the discussions.

Buchanan has made the case to colleagues that he is best positioned to be chairman: He’s the second most senior member on the committee after Brady, and he has led nearly all of its subcommittees at some point.

“I’m next in line — that’s a big deal. I’ve chaired five out of the six subcommittees. Nobody else has,” Buchanan said. “I have a vision and a plan that’ll be based on our members and the conference that we can go execute next year.”

Buchanan said he has been endorsed by two fellow Ways and Means members, Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Jodey Arrington, R-Texas. Asked whether there will be any negative campaigning in the race for the top spot, Buchanan replied, “We’re friends — friends with both Adrian and friends with Jason — and we’ll be friends after.”

But Jason Smith appeared to come out swinging by taking a veiled swipe at Buchanan for raising the seniority issue.

"Seniority isn't just about how long you have occupied a seat — that's how Democrats elect their chairs," he said. "Our party is about who works the hardest and has done the most to put the party and our country in a place to succeed, and I believe I have done that."

The committee posts for Republicans are decided by the Steering Committee, led by GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California. Smith said he has spoken to many members of the Steering Committee.

For the past year, Jason Smith had been flirting with launching a bid to replace retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., even hiring former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien as his campaign consultant. But the Senate race attracted at least a half-dozen GOP hopefuls, including two of Smith's colleagues in the House, Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long, as well as state Attorney General Eric Schmitt and former Gov. Eric Greitens.

Jumping into a field with that many high-profile contenders would have been a risky endeavor for Smith. Instead, he’ll have much better odds of success in the House, where Republicans are favored to flip at least five seats and win back control of the chamber. 

Smith, 41, a former member of the GOP leadership team, has been the top Republican on the Budget Committee since January 2021. Even if he comes up short in the Ways and Means race, he's likely to have the inside track on holding the top GOP post on the Budget Committee.