No Clear Majority Yet for Next GOP Leader

House Whip Kevin McCarthy is the early favorite, but there’s still much jockeying to be done before next Thursday’s vote to replace Eric Cantor.

U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) pauses as he speaks during a news conference June 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Cantor announced that he will step down from his leadership position at the end of July after he had lost his Virginia primary to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat last night.
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Tim Alberta and Billy House
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Tim Alberta and Billy House
June 11, 2014, 5:27 p.m.

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.”

Sarah Mimmsi and Elahe Izadii contributed to this article.
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