Monday's death of Rep. John Murtha leaves vacant one of the most coveted and powerful positions in the House of Representatives -- chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- a seat that will likely go to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.

But a final decision on who may wield the defense appropriations gavel might not be settled for a few weeks.

The subcommittee determines how the Pentagon spends its money. Being chairman of an appropriations subcommittee is one of the most influential posts on Capitol Hill because of the sway these lawmakers hold over their area of federal spending. The chairmen are known as "cardinals" in congressional parlance -- a nod to the role cardinals play in the Catholic church.

Dicks currently is the next ranking Democrat on the defense appropriations subpanel but is currently now chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday it's likely Dicks, who was first seated in 1976, will move into Murtha's old position.

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"Presumably he will take that chairmanship," said Hoyer.

Still, another name mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed Murtha is Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas. Though more junior than Dicks, Edwards chairs the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee. He represents a large military constituency in his district and is well-schooled in the Pentagon's budgetary needs.

Because the appropriations subcommittee chairmanships wield such dominant authority over the federal purse, the panel typically defers to the next senior lawmaker when an opening occurs. House Democrats require their caucus to approve "cardinals" as well as the Steering Committee, which metes out committee assignments.