By Emelie Rutherford

The race is on for House Armed Services Committee (HASC) ranking member, with three of the committee’s five returning GOP subcommittee leaders seeking their party’s top spot on the high-profile panel.

Republican Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), John McHugh (N.Y.), and Mac Thornberry (Texas) are quietly pitching themselves to other House Republicans, seeking to be selected this month by a steering committee for the HASC ranking member spot. It is being vacated by retiring Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

House Republicans began forming the steering committee–which is expected to recommend committee ranking member roles to the full House GOP caucus as soon as the second week of December–after their caucus leadership elections Nov. 19.

Thornberry, ranking member of the HASC Terrorism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, leads his two rivals in a key determinant in the race decided by his GOP colleagues: donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

The seven-term Texas congressman’s campaign has donated $340,000 to the NRCC for the current cycle that started in January 2007, according to his filings with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

McHugh, the ranking member of the Military Personnel subcommittee who has served in Congress eight terms, has contributed $101,500 to the NRCC this cycle from his campaign. Bartlett, the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee ranking member who also is now finishing his eighth term in office, gave the NRCC $15,000 from his leadership political action committee (PAC), according to the FEC.

In addition, all three HASC ranking member hopefuls donated to other Republican’s campaigns, with Thornberry donating the most–$64,000.

Of course, other factors beyond donations weigh into the race. Bartlett noted, in a letter announcing his candidacy for the committee leadership spot, that no Republican will have served on the HASC longer than he has following the retirement of the three most senior members. In addition to Hunter, the armed-services panel is losing to retirement this year GOP Reps. Jim Saxton (N.J.), ranking member on the Air and Land Forces subcommittee, and Terry Everett (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Strategic Forces subcommittee. The HASC has a total of seven subcommittees.

“In my 15 years on the Committee, my attendance, deep involvement and dedication to the Committee’s work and goal of strengthening America’s Armed Forces are well known, unwavering and unquestioned,” Bartlett says in the Nov. 16, 2007 letter.

He notes that while chairing or serving as ranking member on the Seapower subcommittee he fought “for a stronger U.S. military and the industrial base to support it,” and a 313-ship Navy.

“Acquisition reform is a must if we are to modernize, transform and rebuild,” Bartlett’s letter states. “The Republican Party must be in the forefront of this national effort. I will lead the Committee as its [Republican leader] to improve our procurement system.”

Much of McHugh’s work has been in supporting military personnel–a topic that generates substantial debate. Yet he notes in a letter he sent to House Republicans earlier this year that he has held leadership spots on the HASC for 13 years and has gained a broad base of experience.

He said HASC Republicans will be “challenged” in the next session to “ensure that our service personnel have the best possible training, the most modern equipment and weapons systems, and the necessary resources to carry out their missions.”

The HASC’s role, he writes, “must be to properly balance our military as the most flexible, capable, and agile force of the 21st century.”

“Our military forces will need to recover, refurbish and grow to be fully prepared for future conflicts,” McHugh writes, saying the committee needs someone like him who understands “that we are a nation at war against a determined enemy.”

McHugh also is on the steering committee that will help choose the HASC ranking member, his spokeswoman Stephanie Nigro said.

Thornberry has not sent a letter regarding his HASC ranking member candidacy, because he “believes this is something he needs to address one-on-one with his colleagues,” said his spokesman George Rasley.

Thornberry’s subcommittee oversees missile defense, a hot topic now considering Democrats’ concerns about missile defense spending and resistance to Bush administration plans for a missile shield in Europe. On the Strategic Forces subcommittee, the congressman has been working on “how do we get all the tools in the tool box deployed,” Rasley said.

“In a area where people tend to specialize, one of the strengths [Thornberry] brings to it is the breadth of his background,” Rasley said. Thornberry authored the original homeland-security bill before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and has worked on cyber-security and nuclear issues, the spokesman noted.

“[Thornberry] has built up a tremendous amount of credibility with the think tank community and with the defense intellectual community, and demonstrated…willingness to actually sit down, talk to people, pull out the best ideas from whatever source is important,” Rasley said.

After the steering committee issues its committee ranking member recommendations, likely in early December, the full GOP House caucus will cast the final votes. That final vote is expected in December or January.

Also Nov. 20, House Democrats reelected Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) HASC chairman.