House Republican leaders decided Wednesday to oust Veterans' Affairs Committee (search) Chairman Christopher Smith (search), a lawmaker with strong allies in the veterans' community who has tested his party's demands for loyalty with his stances on funding.

The GOP leaders, in a secret ballot, chose Rep. Steve Buyer (search), R-Ind., a 10-year veteran of the committee, to replace Smith, R-N.J., who has led the panel for the past four years. Smith is expected to lose his committee seat, which he has held for 24 years.

The decision is expected to be ratified when all House Republicans meet on Thursday.

Buyer was the only lawmaker to challenge a sitting chairman as party leaders met to organize for the 109th session of Congress. Removing an incumbent is highly unusual, but Smith has been criticized for not being a team player and threatened with loss of his post for questioning party policies.

Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., talking to reporters after the vote, cited what he said was Smith's unwillingness to accept even those budgets backed by the Veterans Affairs Department.

Blunt said Buyer, a 46-year-old Persian Gulf War (search) veteran who is a colonel in the Army Reserve, had presented a more forward-looking vision in pressing his case to party leaders.

Smith, in an interview, defended his record, saying the gains he has made for veterans are enduring, and he denied that he has acted in defiance of the party.

"I think I am very much a team player because I think that good public policy is good for the team," he said.

Smith in the past has angered party leaders by saying that stringent GOP-backed budgets undercut veterans' programs, a sensitive subject when the Bush administration and Congress are trying to show their wartime commitment to troops and veterans.

That independence has won Smith strong support among veterans groups. On Monday the heads of eight veterans groups, including the American Legion (search) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (search), wrote House Speaker Dennis Hastert to say it would be a "tragedy" if Smith were removed from his post.

They noted that Smith had shepherded major legislation through Congress, including modernizing the GI bill, strengthening legal protections and expanding health care services and benefits.

A leading abortion opponent, Smith angered his party several years ago when he held up a GOP-backed bill to overhaul bankruptcy law in a dispute over a provision to prohibit abortion protesters from using bankruptcy to avoid paying court fines for blocking clinics.