A Battle Is Brewing to Succeed John Boehner

The speaker will step aside someday, and those who could replace him are already skirmishing.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (L), and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), stand together during in a media availability following a House Republican conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol, on November 2, 2011.
National Journal
Billy House
March 5, 2014, 4:33 p.m.

The polit­ic­al tur­bu­lence in re­cent days between Rep. Jeb Hensarling and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor over a flood-in­sur­ance bill may of­fer a win­dow on early jock­ey­ing for top po­s­i­tions in the House GOP when Speak­er John Boehner de­parts.

Boehner has ex­pressed no in­ten­tion of leav­ing any­time soon, but he will step aside someday. Can­tor and Hensarling are both talked about as po­ten­tial suc­cessors, and dis­agree­ments between them can raise polit­ic­al ques­tions.

Can­tor, the No. 2 House Re­pub­lic­an, is widely seen as the odds-on fa­vor­ite to re­place Boehner, with broad sup­port across the con­fer­ence.

“That means Can­tor and his staff — they look around and won­der about chal­lengers,” a seni­or House law­maker said Wed­nes­day. “They see three or four guys, and Hensarling’s right there at the top.”

On the flood bill, some in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence said they were dis­ap­poin­ted that Can­tor by­passed the nor­mal com­mit­tee pro­cess to push through a deal with Demo­crats. Hensarling, a Tex­an who chairs the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, would nor­mally con­trol the mak­ings of such a bill. Yet in the end, Hensarling and 85 oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans — in­clud­ing 11 oth­er House com­mit­tee chairs — voted against the meas­ure Can­tor worked out.

“Ob­vi­ously, he tried to not have that hap­pen,” Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp said of Hensarling, adding, “If it were a Ways and Means is­sue, I wouldn’t be happy.”

Neither Can­tor nor Hensarling re­spon­ded to re­quests to dis­cuss their work­ing re­la­tion­ship and the fu­ture of con­fer­ence lead­er­ship. And oth­ers simply don’t see any im­port­ance in the dis­agree­ment over the flood-in­sur­ance bill. “That’s ri­dicu­lous,” one seni­or lead­er­ship aide said Wed­nes­day. “It is ob­vi­ously ri­dicu­lous.”

Hensarling has ex­per­i­ence in House GOP lead­er­ship, but he chose to leave the No. 4-ranked con­fer­ence chair­man­ship to chair Fin­an­cial Ser­vices in 2013. While much spec­u­la­tion has centered on Hensarling as a po­ten­tial rival to Can­tor for speak­er, some law­makers and seni­or aides say he is more likely to fill an­oth­er lead­er­ship post.

Many say a con­ser­vat­ive who could get more tea-party buy-in will have to be brought in­to the cur­rent power struc­ture — mean­ing the top three posts in the con­fer­ence — once Boehner leaves. Hensarling, as well as Reps. Tom Price and Steve Scal­ise, are those men­tioned most of­ten.

What is known for sure is that oth­er is­sues com­ing be­fore Hensarling’s com­mit­tee could di­vide the two men, and parts of the con­fer­ence. One will be wheth­er to re­charter the Ex­port-Im­port Bank. The bank sup­ports loans to over­seas com­pan­ies to help them buy U.S. ex­ports. Hensarling voted against reau­thor­iz­a­tion in 2012, while Can­tor was in­stru­ment­al in fash­ion­ing a pack­age that got that earli­er reau­thor­iz­a­tion through.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans say that is the dif­fer­ence between Hensarling and Can­tor: the ques­tion of prin­ciples versus prag­mat­ism.

Hensarling, a former Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee chair, is viewed as be­ing com­mit­ted to his hawk­ish fisc­al prin­ciples and someone who will not com­prom­ise his stature as a con­ser­vat­ive. It was Hensarling who got rave re­views from groups like the Club for Growth on the flood-in­sur­ance bill. “House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship wants to stick tax­pay­ers with a bill for high­er sub­sidies to beach­front prop­er­ties, but Con­gress­man Hensarling took a prin­cipled stand,” said former Rep. Chris Chocola, the group’s pres­id­ent, in a state­ment.

But there are oth­er views. One seni­or House lead­er­ship aide said that while Hensarling will stick to po­s­i­tions as a mat­ter of prin­ciple, the point of be­ing a com­mit­tee chair­man — and a mem­ber of Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship — is to get le­gis­la­tion passed that can ad­dress prob­lems.

In the case of the flood-in­sur­ance bill, many House Re­pub­lic­ans were un­der pres­sure from con­stitu­ents in flood-prone areas who were ex­per­i­en­cing skyrock­et­ing premi­ums, the un­in­ten­ded con­sequence of re­forms to a fed­er­al in­sur­ance pro­gram. Whip counts showed that some Re­pub­lic­ans, in the ab­sence of a House Re­pub­lic­an bill, were ready to vote for a Sen­ate meas­ure that most Re­pub­lic­ans saw as in­feri­or.

Giv­en the stand­still in Hensarling’s com­mit­tee, Can­tor stepped in, chaired a hand­ful of meet­ings that Hensarling and oth­er com­mit­tee mem­bers par­ti­cip­ated in, and ar­rived at a deal with Demo­crats. “I think Eric was be­ing prac­tic­al,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an.

“I think that both are very prin­cipled guys,” Cole said. “But ob­vi­ously the ma­jor­ity lead­er is try­ing to move product and keep his troops to­geth­er. And Jeb, I think, has al­ways been the fisc­al hawk first.”

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