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Federal File: A New Order?

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Big changes are in the offing on the powerful House Appropriations Committee--possibly even a new chairman who is known as a champion of education programs.

So far, 13 of the panel's 59 members, including three subcommittee chairmen, have announced that they are leaving the House.

And speculation that the committee chairman, Representative Jamie L. Whitten, may soon retire has heated up. The 82-year-old Mississippi Democrat, the longest-serving House member, has headed the panel since 1979.

He was hospitalized in February, for what spokesmen say was a prostate problem and high blood pressure. But it is rumored that he also suffered a stroke.

Observers say the chairman was visibly weak at an April 29 meeting on a pending rescission bill, and he did not appear when the Rules Committee discussed the bill on May 5. When the full House considered it on May 7, Mr. Whitten read a brief statement but delegated management of the debate to Representative William H. Natcher.

The Kentucky Democrat, who has fought for education spending as chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, is next in line to head the full committee by virtue of seniority. Although he also is 82 years old, Mr. Natcher is apparently in good health.

The prospect of a Natcher chairmanship cheers education lobbyists, who envision his subcommittee getting a bigger slice of the overall pie to divide among education and other social-services programs.

But committee sources say Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the panel's fifth-ranking Democrat, has shown an interest in challenging Mr. Natcher for the post.

Mr. Obey is best known as the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees foreign aid and for his advocacy of ethics rules. But he is also a member of Mr. Natcher's subcommittee, where he has demonstrated an interest in education research--and whether Republican administrations were using it to promote a political agenda.

Three members who are the ranking Republicans on their subcommittees are retiring, including Representative Carl D. Pursell of Michigan, who holds that post on the Labor-H.H.S. panel.

Unlike Representative Silvio O. Conte, who had that job until his death last year, neither Mr. Pursell nor Representative John Porter of Illinois, his likely successor, has shown a particular interest in education.

However, Mr. Porter, usually a vocal fiscal conservative, has often sought more impact aid for schools in his suburban district that serve children from military families.--J.M.

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