The Potentially Destructive Battle Brewing Within GOP Leadership

Some of the tensions that have been bubbling inside of the conference could play out in a battle over Cantor’s job.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (R) attend a press conference with Rep. Cath McMorris Rodgers (R-OR) April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
June 11, 2014, 6:59 a.m.

Top House Re­pub­lic­ans were not only left stunned by Eric Can­tor’s un­ex­pec­ted primary loss, but they were also stuck pon­der­ing a sticky ques­tion: Should the ma­jor­ity lead­er step down now as the No. 2 Re­pub­lic­an?

Can­tor’s tech­nic­al du­ties as lead­er in­clude schedul­ing what bills go to the floor, along with the key role of de­vis­ing and mesh­ing the con­fer­ence’s over­all polit­ic­al and le­gis­lat­ive strategy. And there is no re­quire­ment for him to step down un­der in­tern­al House Re­pub­lic­an rules, ac­cord­ing to an aide fa­mil­i­ar with the rules.

But House GOP lead­er­ship aides, speak­ing on the con­di­tion they not be iden­ti­fied, sug­ges­ted that an ar­gu­ment for Can­tor step­ping down ASAP is that his de­feat by tea-party backed Dave Brat rep­res­ents a sort of “no con­fid­ence” vote from Can­tor’s own con­stitu­ents in Vir­gin­ia.

And giv­en that, they also ques­tion wheth­er the con­fer­ence should have a re­jec­ted “lame duck” so prom­in­ently at the helm next to Speak­er John Boehner through the sum­mer and stretch run of this year’s mid-term elec­tions.

The House Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence planned to meet at 4 p.m. Wed­nes­day be­hind closed doors at the Cap­it­ol. Can­tor is ex­pec­ted to speak at that gath­er­ing, but it is un­clear what he plans to say to his fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans.

Already, at least two mem­bers of the House ma­jor­ity are float­ing po­ten­tial can­did­a­cies for Can­tor’s job.

But an ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of keep­ing him around as long as pos­sible is that Boehner and the con­fer­ence don’t need—in fact should avoid—a po­ten­tially tu­mul­tu­ous and de­struct­ive in­tern­al lead­er­ship battle at this point be­fore the elec­tion, and that Boehner should ask Can­tor to stay on as lead­er. There are some who see such a con­test right now as po­ten­tially even an early proxy vote on Boehner him­self, and his en­tire lead­er­hip team.

On Tues­day night, Can­tor gave no pub­lic in­dic­a­tion one way or the oth­er about what he in­tends to do.

But if he does step down, some of the ten­sions that have been bub­bling in­side of the con­fer­ence between more-con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers with Boehner, for sev­er­al years, could play out in a battle over who is to be­come Can­tor’s suc­cessor as ma­jor­ity lead­er.

Con­ser­vat­ives and tea-party backed mem­bers would likely point to Tues­day night’s de­feat of the Vir­gini­an as evid­ence they should have a more prom­in­ent place at the GOP lead­er­ship table.

The cur­rent No. 3 Re­pub­lic­an, House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy of Cali­for­nia, one of Can­tor’s fel­low “Young Guns,” might seem the ob­vi­ous choice to simply move up—and pos­sibly the least dis­rupt­ive an­swer. For someone to leap-frog over him to be­come ma­jor­ity lead­er would be con­sidered an up­set in its own right. But Tues­day night showed up­sets hap­pen.

Mc­Carthy com­mands a good de­gree of ap­peal to con­ser­vat­ives, mak­ing a point of hold­ing “listen­ing ses­sions” and of­ten cham­pi­on­ing their view­points in closed-door lead­er­ship meet­ings. But there have been nag­ging com­plaints about wheth­er he is much of a de­tail-ori­ented lead­er. And some also point to the em­bar­rass­ing de­feats of ma­jor le­gis­la­tion on the House floor, or bills that had to sud­denly be pulled, as evid­ence of his whip mis­counts and or fail­ure to read mem­bers’ true lean­ings be­fore vot­ing.

Oth­er po­ten­tial Can­tor suc­cessors are seen as more dir­ectly tied to con­ser­vat­ives, in­clud­ing Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeb Hensarling and Rules Com­mit­tee Chair­man Pete Ses­sions, both from Texas. Be­ing part of the state del­eg­a­tion alone gives them a head start in get­ting sup­port from col­leagues—as­sum­ing they would have the back­ing of their fel­low GOP Tex­ans in the House.

Both Hensarling and Ses­sions are said to be con­sid­er­ing a bid for ma­jor­ity lead­er and Ses­sions has be­gun mak­ing calls to shore up sup­port among the con­fer­ence. Should both run, they could split the Texas del­eg­a­tion, eras­ing an ad­vant­age in the race. And Rep. Steve Scal­ise, R-La., who chairs the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, also wants to run for lead­er­ship — Mc­Carthy’s whip post if he move up — ac­cord­ing to two sources with know­ledge of his plans.

Hensarling held a House GOP lead­er­ship post un­til the end of last ses­sion, the No. 4 post of House Con­fer­ence Chair­man. But he left it be­hind. He is widely de­scribed as not hav­ing been happy in that slot.

More re­cently, as Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Chair­man, Hensarling has of late be­come in­creas­ingly re­cog­nized as a foe of Can­tor’s 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, which Hensarling op­posed. And an­oth­er po­ten­tial battle could soon erupt between the two over wheth­er to re­charter the little-known Ex­port-Im­port bank, which con­ser­vat­ives op­pose.

But while Hensarling is of­ten seen as a darling of out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups, such as the Club for Growth or Her­it­age Ac­tion, he does not im­me­di­ately ap­pear to have a huge col­lec­tion of ad­or­ing col­leagues with­in the House Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence.

Ses­sions is also said to be look­ing to move up in lead­er­ship. He has staunchly con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials, as well. In ad­di­tion, he has pre­vi­ously held the chair­man­ship of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, dur­ing which he might have col­lec­ted some polit­ic­al chits that he could cash in now.

Of course, aides and oth­ers say that if Paul Ry­an wanted to be ma­jor­ity lead­er, it would be his for the ask­ing. But there are no in­dic­a­tions that the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee would be in­ter­ested. Ry­an’s vice chair on the Budget Com­mit­tee, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a former chair of the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, also is said to be a fa­vor­ite, but he is not ne­ces­sar­ily seen as in­ter­ested.

Oth­ers now in lead­er­ship could move up the rungs. The cur­rent chief deputy whip is Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, and he is likely to want to be whip. And per­haps pres­ci­ently, he has been step­ping up his vis­ib­il­ity in re­cent months with mem­bers through deputy whip memos and oth­er ways.

The cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence Chair, Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers of Wash­ing­ton—the highest rank­ing wo­man among House Re­pub­lic­ans who has had her own run-ins with Can­tor—could also be a can­did­ate to as­sume the whip’s post if Mc­Carthy ad­vances to ma­jor­ity lead­er.

“Everything seems very un­settled right now,” said one seni­or House aide.

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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