WASHINGTON - Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy, D-Mass., are the names being mentioned most often these days by Capitol Hill observers to fill open seats on the House Ways and Means Committee when House leaders make their selections next month.

This year the rumor mill is working overtime because of an unprecedented number of empty seats: more than one-third of the 36-member panel will not return for the 103d Congress. The House Ways and Means Committee, where tax legislation originates, is one of Washington's most powerful congressional panels.

Many of the same names keep popping up, lobbyists said, possibly because those candidates have received informal assurances that they will be selected or are promoting themselves as candidates.

Lobbyists and tax aides said the goal of the leadership is to pick new members from the states that were represented on the committee by the nine Democrats and four Republicans who are departing. The new members would have the same party affiliation as their predecessors.

That means the new members would come from Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Lewis, for example, would fill the slot now occupied by Rep. Ed Jenkins, D-Ga., and Kennedy would take over from Rep. Brian Donnelly, D-Mass. Jenkins and Donnelly will not return in January because they did not run for re-election.

Another example is Rep. Gerald Kleczka, D-Wis., who is rumored to be in line to succeed Rep. Jim Moody, D-Wis., on the committee. Moody left the House to make an unsuccessful run for the Senate.

Ways and Means member Rep. Donald J. Pease, D-Ohio, who is retiring, may be succeeded either by Rep. James A. Traficant, D-Ohio, or Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer, D-Ohio, lobbyists and tax aides said.

The vacancy left by another retiring Ways and Means member, Rep. Raymond J. McGrath, R-N.Y., may be filled by Rep. Susan V. Molinari, R-N.Y., those sources said.

Another name widely circulated as being in line is Rep. Bill Brewster, D-Okla., even though there is no Oklahoma vacancy on the committee. Lobbyists speculated he could fill the position left by Rep. Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., who was defeated in a primary election run-off last June.

The accuracy of all those predictions will be known early next month. The House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee will meet the week of Dec. 7 to make its recommendations for committee assignments, a spokesman for the committee said. House Democrats will then hold a caucus to vote on those recommendations.

The steering and policy panel, which is chaired by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., may take the unusual step of recommending at least one new member of Congress to serve on the Ways and Means panel. Normally, vacancies on the popular Ways and Means and House Appropriations committees are reserved for returning members of Congress.

But this year, the House leadership is aware that "there is a lot of pressure from freshmen for appointments to the major committees," said a housing lobbyist.

The most likely freshman candidate for Ways and Means, several lobbyists said, is Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat who was elected to Illinois' fourth district seat on Nov. 3. He would be the first Hispanic on the panel and would succeed Rep. Marty Russo, D-Ill., who failed in his bid for re-election.

Lobbyists were divided on the question of whether the changes would increase or diminish the power of Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.

"Given such a large turnover, his leadership ... is going to be enhanced, not diminished," said one lobbyist. "He will know the lay of the land and therefore will be able to hit the ground running. Others, I would think, prudently, will follow at least initially."

In the past, Rostenkowski usually has kept tight control over the other 22 Democrats on the committee, counting on their votes. But that could change, with nearly half of them leaving.

"If there's unity among the new members, it potentially could make [Rostenkowski] and other senior members less powerful," said another lobbyist.

Another Capitol Hill observer agreed, saying, "If [the new members] work in conjunction with one an"r, they can be a force to be reckoned with in the committee.

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