Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) was on course to become the new chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee late Wednesday, succeeding Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA), who stepped down from the position earlier this month, Capitol Hill aides said.

The House Republican Conference unanimously approved Barton’s nomination as chairman early Wednesday, and the House was slated to do the same by voice vote later in the day, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) told NGI. At NGI’s press time, however, the House still had not acted.

Barton scheduled a press briefing Thursday to announce that Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) will succeed him as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s energy and air quality subcommittee. In addition, he will name new members to the full committee in officer roles, according to Barton spokeswoman Samantha Jordan.

The new chairman also is expected to discuss his agenda. Barton has said his first priority as chairman will be to work with President Bush and the Senate to obtain the two additional votes that are needed to pass the conference report on the broad energy bill (HR 6) in the Senate. The conference report cleared the House in November, but it stalled in the Senate when Democrats successfully filibustered it.

Barton opposes the pared-down energy bill (S. 2095) introduced by Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The new bill, which has a net cost of $14 billion, strips out financial incentives, pushes back the effective dates of certain incentives, and eliminates the liability waiver for producers of a gasoline additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

“I know that Majority Leader [Tom] Frist and Chairman Domenici…are trying to facilitate action [in the Senate], but from the House perspective it seems most practical and expedient at this point for Senate Republicans to be working toward getting the two more votes needed” to bring the conference report to the floor for consideration, Barton said last week. “Why recreate the wheel when consideration of the existing conference report is only two votes away?”

A member of the House since 1984, Barton is well steeped in the issues affecting the natural gas, crude oil and electricity industries. The Center for Responsive Politics predicts that he will be an “even more loyal friend” to these industries than Tauzin.

The group estimates that Barton has received $1.6 million in campaign contributions from the energy sector since 1989, more than any other member of the House. His top contributor in the 2004 election cycle so far is Anadarko Petroleum, one of the nation’s largest independent oil and gas producers, it noted.

In addition to stepping down as chairman, Tauzin announced earlier this month that he will not seek re-election later this year after serving nearly 24 years on Capitol Hill. He currently is negotiating for a position with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association in Washington, DC.

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