By Emelie Rutherford

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calf.) is the new ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), House Republicans decided yesterday.

McKeon faced off for the high-profile spot against Reps. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) in a brief behind-the-scenes contest. It was launched after President Obama on June 2 tapped former Ranking Member John McHugh (R-N.Y.) to be the next Army secretary.

A House Republican steering committee met yesterday and opted against choosing Bartlett, who has had the most seniority of Republicans on HASC since McHugh stepped down on June 3.

McKeon said he will work “to ensure Republicans have a strong voice at the table on major national security and defense issues.”

“My first priority will be to work with (HASC) Chairman (Ike) Skelton (D-Mo.) to guarantee our troops have the resources and equipment they need to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan,” McKeon said in a statement.

He pledged to “work to seamlessly transition” into his new role, and to work with his Republican colleagues to ensure their defense priorities are addressed.

Those “include restoring funding for missile defense, reaching a resolution to keep Guantanamo terrorist detainees off U.S. soil, and maintaining our military superiority for todays needs and tomorrows threats,” he said.

A HASC member since 1995, McKeon has served this term on the Strategic Forces and Air and Land Forces subcommittees.  He founded the Congressional Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus and is a member of the Missile Defense and House Aerospace caucuses.  His district includes Edwards Air Force Base and six other major military installations.

Bartlett argued in an interview on Monday that he was due the ranking member spot, and that for the 16-plus years he served on the HASC the leading Republicans were selected by seniority.

House GOP sources, though, noted the party in recent years has weighed factors beyond seniority when deciding whom to elevate to leadership spots on committees.

Thornberry was an early favorite in the ranking member race, before it was clear McKeon was interested in the spot. McKeon is close to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R- Ohio), who chairs the steering committee that determined the winner.

To serve as the HASC ranking member McKeon, under House Republican rules, must relinquish his post as lead Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

McHugh, Thornberry, and Bartlett all jockeyed late last year for the ranking member spot opened up by the retirement of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). McHugh and Thornberry at the time were the top contenders, sources said.

The HASC subcommittees plan to start marking up the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill tomorrow, followed by the full committee’s markup next Tuesday.