Smith Tuesday was selected by Senate Republicans to take over the Environment and Public Works Committee, a job that opened up with the death of Rhode Island Senator John Chafee.
Smith becomes the first New Hampshire senator to get the chairmanship of a full-standing committee since 1953.
"It says people were willing to look at the future, not to the past," Smith said in a phone interview. "They're willing to build bridges, not tear them down."
As chairman, Smith could direct as much as $2 billion to New Hampshire in the next few years for environmental cleanup and road construction, he said.
Smith also chairs the Senate ethics committee, but that is a special committee not granted full standing.
Smith, who has been on the environment committee nine years, said the panel has a "lot of unfinished business, so we're going to have to really step in here."
Smith said top priorities would include cleaning up Superfund sites, transportation, clean water and clean air.
"My goal is that whenever state and local communities can make decisions I think they should," he said. "When they need help from the federal government we should look at getting it to them."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., also had jockeyed for the chairmanship left vacant by the death last week of Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island.
But Smith said he had made his intentions clear to the GOP leadership before Chafee's death that he had wanted to return to the party, but made the move before a new chairman was named. He returned Monday, 111 days after becoming an independent.
Smith had sought the GOP presidential nomination, but showed little headway in the polls. His brief run as an independent did no better.
Smith said his selection in the closed-door meeting of GOP members of the committee was unanimous. His ratification by the Senate's Republican majority was considered a formality.
"I think that's great news for New Hampshire and for Senator Smith," said Steve Duprey, chairman of the state Republican Party. "It gives Senator Smith a great opportunity to work to do good things for New England, the Northeast and the entire country."
Duprey said he expects as committee chairman Smith will assure New Hampshire's Superfund sites get cleaned up, "which would be tremendous."
He also said it also could assure the state get its fair share of tax money toward transportation.
Smith, a lifelong Republican, abandoned the party in July, saying it had strayed from its conservative roots and was dominated by pollsters and consultants. He tried his luck with an independent bid for the White House, but folded his campaign Thursday
"I believed I could accomplish conservative unity as an independent, but I became a lightning rod for divisiveness," Smith said. "I was wrong. I did not become a magnet for bringing conservatives together.
"I believed at the time that this could be done outside the Republican Party," he said. "I was wrong."
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