If each setback is an opportunity — as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor mused about his primary-election defeat — then the opportunity being seized upon by some of his Republican colleagues Wednesday was to waste no time in launching or mulling over bids to replace him.
A no-holds-barred political sprint may be afoot, with members of the stunned House Republican Conference now faced with deciding who their new No. 2 leader behind Speaker John Boehner should be, in closed-door balloting set for next Thursday.
Cantor said he intends to serve out his term through the end of the year as a House member, but will step down as GOP leader on July 31. Boehner, whose own long-term hold on the speakership may be debatable, told his fellow House Republicans in a closed-door meeting that “this is the time for unity.”
But unity is far from certain.
Depending on who was talking, the decision on the new majority leader is laced with meaning far beyond the simple idea of “next guy on the rung moves up.” Some say, perhaps overly dramatically, that the next few days could have profound ramifications on the future of the party and its direction. Or, that is, at least on the next round of a full slate of GOP leadership elections following the Nov. 4 election, including for speaker.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the current No. 3 House Republican, might seem the obvious choice to succeed Cantor. But to most everyone on Capitol Hill, it was also obvious that Cantor would breeze to reelection in his central Virginia district.
For what it’s worth, Cantor is endorsing his fellow “Young Gun” to be his successor. He said McCarthy would make “an outstanding majority leader.” And the prevailing belief is that Cantor’s embrace is not a kiss of death.
But how far that will carry McCarthy toward getting the backing of a majority of his 232 fellow House Republicans is uncertain. Certainly, McCarthy holds a clear organizational lead — the Californian huddled Tuesday with more than 30 supporters, including some powerful committee chairs.
But others were engaged in their own maneuvers, or at least mulling whether to join the race.
Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the current Rules Committee chairman, was operating most unabashedly — texting members, speaking to reporters. He is casting himself as a cure for what the conference needs, in that it “does need to move to a more conservative direction.” He noted that he’d fended off a primary challenger himself “in a very similar circumstance” to what Cantor faced, and that “I’m a pro-business conservative and I think [members] will see a focused understanding about what I think we should accomplish.”
Regardless of Sessions’s ideological bona fides, many House conservatives are anxiously awaiting a decision from another Texan, Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, as to whether he will take on McCarthy.
In fact, if there was any significant reason for Cantor’s quick endorsement of McCarthy other than chumminess, it might have been the prospect of Hensarling being the alternative.
Hensarling has become the recognized foe of Cantor on a number of issues that separate Republicans over fiscal issues. The two clashed earlier this year when Cantor bypassed the Financial Services Committee — and previous GOP pledges to stick to regular order — to work out passage of a flood-insurance reform bill with Democrats that Hensarling opposed.
And another potential battle had been anticipated between the two this summer over whether to recharter by Sept. 30 the little-known Export-Import bank, which conservatives oppose.
But the longer Hensarling delays jumping into the race — he said Wednesday that he was “prayerfully considering” the idea — the slimmer his odds become of toppling McCarthy. In fact, the question of how soon prospective contenders should jump into the race draws laughter from some quarters.
“Maybe yesterday,” said Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee. “They don’t have much time here to organize a campaign.”
And because of that tight turnaround, McCarthy enters the contest to replace his friend with a significant advantage in terms of infrastructure and — of course — vote-counting experience.
“I think the front-runner right now for majority leader is Kevin McCarthy,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, even though he considers Hensarling a mentor and has made no secret of the fact that he’ll actively support the Financial Services chairman for a leadership position.
But Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said, “A week is plenty of time for a conservative candidate to get enough votes.
“The loss by Cantor showed how much the moderate wing of the party just lost out — they’re out of touch, they obviously lost the election. And they can pull a lot of money. But at the end of the day, between now and June 19th, there’s not many people you can buy off through campaign contributions,” said Huelskamp.
And even if McCarthy wins, there is talk among members of a future challenger — perhaps Hensarling — passing on next week’s contest and instead spending the next several months laying the groundwork for November’s conference elections, when leadership positions will be decided for the next Congress.
In other words, just because McCarthy appears likely to be elected majority leader next week, it doesn’t mean he’s a lock to serve in that role come the 114th Congress.
A majority of votes from conference members is needed to win the leadership post. If there are multiple candidates, and none of the three or more gets a majority, then the contender with the lowest count drops out on the next ballot.
There will be a separate election held next week to replace McCarthy in the whip’s office — if in fact he wins the majority-leader race.
In addition to Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois, one member who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the whip job is Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri. Asked whether she planned to run, Wagner declined comment.
As for the current No. 4 House Republican — Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington — she had said that she, like Hensarling, was praying over what to do. But her prayers were apparently answered faster than his. She said Wednesday afternoon that she plans to stay in her current leadership role “at this time.”
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