Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA) informed the House leadership last Tuesday that he will retire from Congress by the close of the year, ending his nearly 24-year career on Capitol Hill, and will relinquish his position as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee effective Feb. 16.

There’s “virtually no question” that Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), current chairman of the House energy panel’s subcommittee on energy and air quality, will succeed Tauzin as chairman of the committee, said an energy industry legislative expert. Barton “has been preparing for this opportunity for a year or two now.” Tauzin was named chairman six years after he switched to the GOP Party in 1995.

“I am now actively seeking to be his [Tauzin’s] successor to the chairmanship, and am flattered to have his endorsement,” Barton said in a prepared statement last Wednesday. He noted he had “positive meetings” with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), and expected an “expedient Steering Committee meeting to allow [for] a smooth transition” in committee leadership.

A one-time employee of Amoco and Capitol Hill veteran, Barton knows the issues affecting the natural gas production and pipeline industries, the legislative analyst said. The Texas Republican also had been intricately involved in electricity issues over the past couple of years.

“I think he [Tauzin] will be missed. He’s a really good legislator — one of the best,” he noted. He said Tauzin currently is being interviewed for a position with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association in Washington, DC. Critics have accused the Louisiana Republican of a conflict of interest, saying he was jockeying for the position at the same time Congress was considering the massive Medicare legislation in November.

It had been rumored for months that Tauzin was planning to leave Capitol Hill to head up the Motion Picture Association of America, the chief lobbying group for the American motion picture, home video and television industries. But the industry analyst believes Tauzin’s health problems — bleeding ulcers — prompted the lawmaker to explore a position that involved less travel.

Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, a new convert to the Republican side, is expected to succeed Barton as chairman of the House energy and air quality subcommittee.

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