WASHINGTON - With Republicans retaining a slim majority in the House, the betting is Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey will lead the Banking Committee next year.
"Unless something unforeseen were to occur, Marge Roukema will assume the chair of the banking committee," said a top House Republican leadership aide who did not want to be named.
On the basis of seniority, Rep. Roukema, a 20-year veteran of the committee and chairwoman of its financial institution subcommittee, is in line to be chairwoman. But that is not the only selection factor, and she is being challenged by Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana, who heads the capital markets subcommittee.
In an interview Wednesday, Rep. Roukema said she expects the Republicans' narrow majority will work in her favor and that Rep. Baker could be persuaded to drop his bid.
"I believe the leadership realizes, with the majority being so narrow, we need ways to bring the party together as a team," she said. "These kind of fights would not be conducive to bringing us together."
Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, echoed her argument.
"The closer the margin is in the House, the more difficult it will be for the industry and Republican leadership to turn aside the very legitimate chairmanship bid of Marge Roukema," he said.
Rep. Roukema has said her agenda as chairwoman would be determined in large part after hearings on topics from consumer privacy to predatory lending. She also plans to oversee implementation of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act's privacy, merchant banking, and other provisions.
But others said the Republicans' tenuous hold on the House could favor Rep. Baker. (With two races still too close to call, the Republicans will hold a seven- to 11-seat majority next year.)
In a letter to clients Wednesday, Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the banking consulting firm ISD/Shaw, wrote that the election's outcome, "together with other recent developments, favors Richard Baker over Marge Roukema." She cited Rep. Baker's "closeness to the leadership and his strong working relationship with Sen. Gramm," while Rep. Roukema "has had an occasionally rocky relationship with her leadership."
Rep. Baker said in an interview Wednesday that he will abide by whatever decision House leaders make. "It's premature to make any judgments," he said. "I will do what leadership expects me to do, and that is the bottom line. I am very much a team player."
Though Rep. Roukema is not considered a major player in Republican party politics and often bucks the party line on social issues like abortion rights - the two traditional prerequisites for getting a chairmanship - she received $5,000 for her primary from the political action committees of House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey of Texas.
Rep. Roukema emphasized that she is campaigning for the chairmanship by working with members of the Banking Committee who have proposed legislation or want to schedule hearings next year, and helping to raise money for the Republican National Committee's congressional arm. What she is not doing, she said, is helping fellow Republicans raise money for their campaigns - something Rep. Baker did with gusto.
"I'm not saying it with Mr. Baker necessarily, but there's a lot of buying of chairmanships going on out there," Rep. Roukema told American Banker in September. "That I have not been doing. I don't think you should buy a chairmanship. I think you should earn it on the basis of your legislative leadership and how you work with people on the substance of the issues."
Rep. Baker countered that his Republican duty is to help with fundraising.
"There's no secret I have been significantly involved in helping members raise money," he said in September. "I have hosted probably 25 events. I think it is a part of our responsibility to help other members get elected. To that end I will make no apology that I am aggressively helping other members get elected. Now, what effect if any that has on the Speaker's decision about the way the chairmanships will be selected, I have no expectation."
The elephant in the room is Rep. Roukema's reputation as a lightweight on complicated issues.
"Baker has such a strong command of banking issues, the industry" and members of Congress "would likely lean toward him for chairman," said one Washington lobbyist who did not want to be named. "But I don't think Republican leadership could get away with not giving the chair to Roukema."
This lobbyist and others have speculated that Republicans could appoint Rep. Roukema to a party leadership post and give Rep. Baker the committee chairmanship. One election-day news report had commentators musing that if Texas Gov. George W. Bush became president, he could ask Rep. Roukema to serve in his administration in an economic advisory role.
Rep. Roukema dismissed the report as pure speculation. "I would be very flattered to be considered, but I have to emphasize that the Bush campaign and I have not spoken."
Another industry lobbyist, Rick Hohlt, defended Rep. Roukema's ability to lead House Banking. "Her subcommittee has passed more banking bills than the Senate Banking Committee has," he said. "Baker is a zealot on only one issue."
Rep. Baker spent much of the year working to tighten regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Other chairmanship scenarios have Republican leaders transferring the financial services jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee to the Banking Committee - and perhaps removing some of House Banking's control over housing issues.
Under that script, Commerce's finance subcommittee chairman, Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio, may be given the House Banking chairmanship. That would solve another problem for House leaders: Commerce Committee head Tom Bliley is retiring, and a fight for the chairmanship has broken out between Rep. Oxley and the second-highest-ranking Republican, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin.
The odds of changing the committees' jurisdictions are long, even though senior Republicans have endorsed such a change. "It's very, very hard to break up the mortar and infrastructure of committee jurisdictions," Mr. Hohlt said. "It takes major surgery."
Former House Speaker "Newt Gingrich and the boys did it in 1994, but they came in on a revolution," he said. "Now it is just trench warfare."
The Republican leadership aide agreed. "It's a pretty heavy lift, and I haven't seen a groundswell for that type of solution," he said.
What is already clear is that Rep. John LaFalce, R-N.Y., will retain his position next year as the committee's top Democrat.
House Banking Chairman Jim Leach of Iowa was reelected but is required by Republican party term limits to relinquish his chairmanship. He may remain on House Banking as a rank-and-file member.
Below the top seats on the dais, the committee makeup is not expected to change much. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., the freshman who helped push privacy provisions into the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act last year, won reelection handily. Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., Rep. Jim Maloney, D-Conn., held their seats in relatively tight races.
Not returning are Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., who gave up his seat to run unsuccessfully against incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., and Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., who are retiring; Rep. Michael Forbes, D-N.Y., and Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, who lost their primary elections; and Rep. Bob Weygand, D-R.I., who lost a Senate race to the incumbent, Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.
Rob Blackwell and Rob Garver contributed to this article.