Kevin McCarthy on Path to Take No. 2 House Leadership Job

After Hensarling declines the challenge, Sessions launched and then dropped a campaign for the post.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is trailed by reporters while walking through Statuary Hall the U.S. Capitol building, June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
June 11, 2014, 7:14 p.m.

House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy has what ap­pears to be a wide-open route to the No. 2 spot in the House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship after con­ser­vat­ives’ favored can­did­ate, Jeb Hensarling, said he wouldn’t run for ma­jor­ity lead­er.

The only cer­tain obstacle in Mc­Carthy’s path had been Rep. Pete Ses­sions. But late Thursday, the Rules Com­mit­tee chair­man dropped his bid for Eric Can­tor’s job.

Un­like Hensarling, Ses­sions was a long-shot to topple Mc­Carthy and his vote-count­ing ma­chine. Ses­sions is not nearly as pop­u­lar among con­ser­vat­ives in the con­fer­ence, and while he has a strong re­la­tion­ship with Speak­er John Boehner, most of the es­tab­lish­ment-al­lied Re­pub­lic­ans are already ral­ly­ing be­hind Mc­Carthy.

In his state­ment end­ing his lead­er­ship cam­paign, Ses­sions said that “it be­came ob­vi­ous to me that the meas­ures ne­ces­sary to run a suc­cess­ful cam­paign would have cre­ated un­ne­ces­sary and pain­ful di­vi­sion with­in our party.”

But a di­vis­ive in­tern­al cam­paign could yet hap­pen. Late Thursday night Na­tion­al Journ­al learned that Rep. Raul Lab­rador is con­sid­er­ing a run for ma­jor­ity lead­er. Lab­rador, who was ap­proached by sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ives Thursday morn­ing after Hensarling de­cided not to run, would still face a ma­jor chal­lenge in build­ing a co­ali­tion broad enough to ser­i­ously con­test Mc­Carthy in next Thursday’s spe­cial elec­tion.

If Mc­Carthy wins the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s post, there will be an im­me­di­ate and sub­sequent con­test to re­place him as ma­jor­ity whip. It was thought that this race would fea­ture Reps. Steve Scal­ise and Peter Roskam go­ing head-to-head, and seni­or Re­pub­lic­ans pegged Scal­ise as the odds-on fa­vor­ite. But Rep. Marlin Stutz­man let it be known Thursday morn­ing that he, too, will run, ac­cord­ing to GOP aides, com­plic­at­ing the math of that con­test as Stutz­man could draw some con­ser­vat­ive sup­port away from Scal­ise.

Tues­day’s shock­ing primary de­feat of Can­tor — and his sub­sequent an­nounce­ment that he’ll step down as ma­jor­ity lead­er ef­fect­ive Ju­ly 31 — ad­ded ur­gency to the con­ser­vat­ives’ cause. In­stead of wait­ing un­til Novem­ber’s con­fer­ence elec­tions to shake up what they view as a mod­er­ate, risk-averse lead­er­ship team, they saw an op­por­tun­ity to do so in next Thursday’s spe­cial elec­tion to re­place Can­tor.

Hensarling’s de­cision is a blow to House con­ser­vat­ives, as he was the last of their pre­ferred can­did­ates to be ser­i­ously con­sid­er­ing a run against Mc­Carthy. (Con­ser­vat­ives are launch­ing a last-minute at­tempt to change the mind of Rep. Jim Jordan, who’s already ruled out a run, but it’s doubt­ful they’ll find any suc­cess.)

For the siz­able bloc of tea-party-al­lied law­makers who have been fix­ated on in­ject­ing fresh blood in­to the up­per­most ech­el­ons of GOP lead­er­ship, only a couple of can­did­ates are viewed as le­git­im­ate and ac­cept­able be­sides Hensarling and Jordan: Paul Ry­an and Tom Price.

But Ry­an and Jordan have re­peatedly and em­phat­ic­ally denied any in­terest in a lead­er­ship race. Price, who already lost a bid for con­fer­ence chair at the out­set of this Con­gress, con­firmed in a state­ment Thursday morn­ing that he’s fo­cused on tak­ing over the Budget Com­mit­tee from Ry­an next year. It’s highly un­likely that any oth­er con­ser­vat­ive law­maker could piece to­geth­er the co­ali­tion needed to win a lead­er­ship post — es­pe­cially on such short no­tice.

If Hensarling was the con­ser­vat­ives’ last best hope, he cer­tainly didn’t ap­pear to be feel­ing any pres­sure. He met with al­lies throughout the day Wed­nes­day, yet ap­peared in no hurry to reach a de­cision. Mc­Carthy, mean­while, threw his vote-count­ing op­er­a­tion in­to high gear, host­ing groups of law­makers in his of­fice and work­ing his col­leagues on the House floor. With the elec­tion a week away, and Mc­Carthy’s team up and run­ning, time was run­ning out for Hensarling to enter the race — and con­ser­vat­ives knew it.

“To­night I will pray that @Re­pH­ensarling runs for ma­jor­ity lead­er,” Rep. Justin Amash, a fre­quent crit­ic of the cur­rent lead­er­ship, tweeted Wed­nes­day night. “I re­spect him & trust him. Our coun­try needs him.”

But Hensarling de­cided to fo­cus on chair­ing Fin­an­cial Ser­vices. “Al­though I am humbled by the calls, emails, and con­ver­sa­tions from my col­leagues en­cour­aging me to re­turn to lead­er­ship for the re­mainder of the 113th Con­gress, I will not be a can­did­ate for Ma­jor­ity Lead­er next week,” he said Thursday. “After pray­er­ful re­flec­tion, I have come to the con­clu­sion that this is not the right of­fice at the right time for me and my fam­ily.”

A Hensarling bid would have giv­en con­ser­vat­ives a chance to in­filt­rate one of the top two GOP lead­er­ship posts. Seni­or Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve he could give Mc­Carthy a com­pet­it­ive race for three reas­ons: his stand­ing as a former chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee; his con­fer­ence-wide repu­ta­tion as a fisc­al hawk; and his re­la­tion­ships in the Texas del­eg­a­tion, which boasts two dozen votes in next week’s elec­tion. (Ses­sions, also a Tex­an, had at­temp­ted to unite the Lone Star State del­eg­a­tion be­hind him be­fore bow­ing out.)

Of course, there was nev­er any guar­an­tee that Hensarling could win; in fact, some Re­pub­lic­ans think Mc­Carthy can’t be beaten next week, giv­en the short turn­around. Hensarling, had he jumped in, would have just one week to or­gan­ize against an op­pon­ent whose op­er­a­tion is buzz­ing along and already se­cur­ing com­mit­ments from dozens of law­makers. “I just don’t see it,” one seni­or Re­pub­lic­an aide not af­fil­i­ated with either of­fice said of Hensarling’s chances.

Hensarling, of course, was aware of these factors. As the former man­ager of a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign and one­time ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, he is as polit­ic­ally savvy as they come. And, des­pite his repu­ta­tion as a rock-ribbed con­ser­vat­ive, Hensarling also is known for his prag­mat­ic streak.

“Jeb Hensarling is not the type of mem­ber who makes reck­less or im­puls­ive de­cisions. He’s al­ways meth­od­ic­al and thought­ful,” says Brad Dayspring, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or at the NR­SC and a former Hensarling staffer. “He likes to have what he calls a ‘menu of op­tions’ to choose from. He’s just not the kind of per­son who rushes to judg­ment on any­thing.”

In real­ity, it’s not clear Hensarling ever had strong in­terest in run­ning; he has young chil­dren at home, and is known to spend every mo­ment he can in his Dal­las-area con­gres­sion­al dis­trict. That said, if Hensarling has been scan­ning a “menu of op­tions” over the last 48 hours, there’s an al­tern­at­ive that prob­ably looks quite ap­peal­ing. Rather than at­tempt a last-minute, up­hill cam­paign against a well-or­gan­ized foe, he could sit out next week’s elec­tion — and in­stead be­gin or­gan­iz­ing to run against Mc­Carthy in Novem­ber’s con­fer­ence elec­tions.

It would be a win for Hensarling, as well as for con­ser­vat­ives. They would get to spend the next five months or­gan­iz­ing a le­git­im­ate cam­paign to in­filt­rate the second-highest po­s­i­tion in lead­er­ship, and Hensarling would get to hold an in­ter­im ma­jor­ity lead­er’s feet to the fire on his sig­na­ture is­sue: end­ing the Ex­port-Im­port bank. If Mc­Carthy blocks Hensarling’s cru­sade to deny reau­thor­iz­a­tion to the bank, the Right goes in­sane and Hensarling be­ne­fits; if Mc­Carthy ap­proves Hensarling’s plan, the bank goes away and Hensarling gets a de­fin­ing win on his trade­mark is­sue.

It makes a whole lot of sense — but it’s un­clear wheth­er Hensarling’s de­cision not to run is just for next week’s elec­tion, or for the Novem­ber con­tests as well. “My state­ment this morn­ing speaks for it­self,” Hensarling said Thursday af­ter­noon, un­will­ing to en­gage the ques­tion of wheth­er he could run for a lead­er­ship spot in Novem­ber.

Even if Hensarling is will­ing to run later, there’s no im­me­di­ate con­sol­a­tion for the dis­gruntled con­ser­vat­ives who have long been crav­ing the chance to re­shuffle lead­er­ship — and who view next week’s spe­cial elec­tion as an un­ex­pec­ted golden op­por­tun­ity. Still, the net­work of sup­port would still be in place for a Novem­ber bid. Already some of those con­ser­vat­ives have been reach­ing out to former Sen. Phil Gramm, Hensarling’s one­time col­lege pro­fess­or and later his boss on Cap­it­ol Hill, ask­ing him to pres­sure Hensarling in­to a lead­er­ship race. That out­reach is likely to con­tin­ue throughout the sum­mer months.

“He’s cer­tainly cap­able of it. I don’t think Jeb is in­clined to want it,” Gramm said. “But you nev­er know. Some­times op­por­tun­ity knocks on the door; oth­er times you have to go knock the door in.”

This post has been up­dated with the news that Rep. Ses­sions has dropped his bid for ma­jor­ity lead­er.

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