Rep. Christopher Cox, a senior member of the House GOP leadership, will head the newly created homeland security committee, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Wednesday.

The California conservative will be the first chairman of the panel responsible for overseeing the giant new Homeland Security Department that President Bush signed into law late last year.

The department, to combine such security-related agencies as the Customs Service, Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Coast Guard, is to take shape this year.

Cox, 50, was first elected to Congress in 1988 and has been the head of the House Republican Policy Committee since the Republicans captured control of the House in 1995.

In 1998 his party chose him to head a select committee to investigate China's alleged theft of U.S. nuclear and military technology and he has been one of the strongest critics in Congress of China's human rights record.

"Chris is an excellent candidate" to head the new committee, Hastert said. Homeland security "will be one of the largest issues before us" this year, the speaker said.

"I will work to make our government more effective in the fight against terrorism," Cox said. "I will ensure that it is done efficiently, and that Congress and the federal government work together toward this common goal."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will name the top Democrat on the "select" committee, which will differ from other "standing" committees in that it will focus on specific oversight or investigative functions.

Republicans late Wednesday also chose two Virginians and two Californians to take over committee chairmanships left vacant by retirements or term limits.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California will succeed Bob Stump, R-Ariz. as head of the Armed Services Committee, while Rep. Richard Pombo beat out several more senior rivals, including fellow Californian Elton Gallegly, to win the chairmanship of the Resources Committee. He succeeds Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, who retired.

Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, outgoing head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, will succeed Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who has served the maximum six years as head of the Government Reform Committee, while Virginian Bob Goodlatte will be next chairman of the Agriculture Committee. He succeeds Larry Combest of Texas, who retired.

Other current chairman will retain their jobs. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., will continue to head the Appropriations Committee, while Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., will again head the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, will continue as Budget Committee chairman.

There also will be little change in the new Congress among the Democrats holding the minority leadership roles in committees. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., will be the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee following the retirement of Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y.

The Republican takeover of the Senate means that Republicans who have served as ranking members on committees will take over chairmanships. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will again head Appropriations while Charles Grassley R-Iowa will again be chairman of Finance.

Among the changes, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who has served as the GOP Whip, will become chairman of the Budget Committee and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., long the top Republican on Budget, will move over to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who was forced to step down as Senate Republican leader because of remarks he made that were considered racially insensitive, is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Rules and Administration Committee.