House Taps Obey To Replace Natcher as Head of Spending Panel

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House Democrats bucked the seniority system last week to appoint Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the acting chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He will fill in for Rep. William H. Natcher, D-Ky.

Mr. Natcher, who is 84 years old, has been hospitalized for several weeks with heart problems. Many education lobbyists consider him a champion of education programs and an important ally in the appropriations process.

Mr. Natcher has not formally stepped down from the chairmanship of either the full Appropriations Committee or the subcommittee that funds the Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor departments. Should he do so, Mr. Obey would officially become the full-committee chairman.

It is unclear who would take over the subcommittee position, where most of the decisions on education funding are made. Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, would be next in line based on seniority. He will chair the subcommittee in Mr. Natcher's absence, aides said.

System Not 'Ironclad'

Congressional tradition would have awarded the full-committee chairmanship to Mr. Smith as well. But the Democratic caucus, which totals 262 members, voted 152 to 106 last week to name Mr. Obey.

Both Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, D-Miss.--who was replaced as chairman last year by Mr. Natcher, also for health reasons--and Rep. Sidney R. Yates, D-Ill., were also ahead of Mr. Obey in rank, but neither sought the chairmanship.

While the caucus's decision to jump over Mr. Smith, 74, and nominate a 55-year-old challenger is notable, it is not unprecedented, Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said in a news conference last week.

"It's never been ironclad,'' he said of the seniority system.

Both Mr. Obey and Mr. Smith serve on the appropriations subcommittee that funds education, but both currently chair other subcommittees. While in theory the subcommittee chairman would be elected by seniority--meaning that Mr. Smith would be chairman--last week's events could bring that into question, observers said.

The decision on the subcommittee slot will probably not be made for several weeks, said an aide to Mr. Natcher.

Mr. Smith last week briefly presided over a subcommittee hearing with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, then turned it over to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.

In his opening statement, Mr. Riley recalled Mr. Natcher's "strong voice in support of education.''

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