Moderates Look to Flex Muscle in Majority-Leader Race

Without their own horse in the contest, GOP centrists want to at least influence the outcome and push for party rebels to punished more aggressively.

Rep. Charlie Dent (right), shown here with House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, is one of the Republican moderates pushing leadership candidates for assurances on internal conference politics.
Chip Somodevilla AFP/Getty
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Sept. 29, 2015, 5:35 p.m.

Without a can­did­ate of their own in the race for ma­jor­ity lead­er, House Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates and de­fense hawks are look­ing to in­flu­ence the con­test as a coun­ter­bal­ance to con­ser­vat­ives, with some even ad­voc­at­ing ex­treme pun­ish­ment for re­bel­li­ous mem­bers.

Sens­ing strength in num­bers, mem­bers are push­ing lead­er­ship can­did­ates for as­sur­ances on mil­it­ary spend­ing, pro­ced­ure, and in­tern­al con­fer­ence polit­ics in ex­change for their sup­port.

Con­fer­ence Chair­wo­man Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, a mem­ber of the mod­er­ate Tues­day Group, an­nounced Monday even­ing she will not run for ma­jor­ity lead­er. That de­prived many among the roughly 50-strong cent­rist group of their first choice for the post. Neither Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scal­ise nor Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Price fit the bill, they said.

“I’m totally open on that one,” said Rep. Jaime Her­rera Beut­ler, who was an aide to Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers be­fore join­ing Con­gress her­self. “I was try­ing to ask my­self that ques­tion yes­ter­day. This is a de­cent group of folks. … Where are we go­ing to go? I think people are go­ing to hold their votes for a bit.”

Mem­bers of the Tues­day Group in­ter­viewed for this story said that it is pos­sible the group could vote as a bloc but that has not been de­cided. Can­did­ates for the lead­er­ship posts are ex­pec­ted to meet privately with the group dur­ing the cam­paign. Already it is be­com­ing clear that many of the mod­er­ates, who have long been known to help lead­er­ship pass tough bills con­ser­vat­ives re­fuse to sup­port, are now hop­ing to dish some tough­ness back.

“A lot of folks who reg­u­larly vote for the bills are largely mem­bers of the Tues­day Group,” Rep. Charlie Dent said. “They put the votes up all the time and lead­ers get to take passes. I want to make sure that the new lead­er­ship team un­der­stands that they go up on the board first as, ‘Yes.’ They’re the first yeses. That’s part of be­ing a lead­er.”

The Tues­day Group met earli­er in the week, and on Tues­day af­ter­noon a num­ber of its mem­bers dined privately with Speak­er John Boehner. Sev­er­al mem­bers of the group are ad­voc­at­ing for a House rule that would es­sen­tially ban­ish mem­bers from the con­fer­ence if they vote against a can­did­ate for speak­er on the House floor when that can­did­ate has already been elec­ted by the con­fer­ence be­hind closed doors. Those mem­bers would not be wel­come in con­fer­ence meet­ings and would lose key com­mit­tee posts.

Sim­il­ar ideas were posed earli­er this year, when 25 Re­pub­lic­ans voted for someone oth­er than Boehner on the House floor, even after the con­fer­ence had privately voted to elect him as speak­er. And even if that rule does not pass muster with the con­fer­ence, there are oth­er lever­age points for mod­er­ates.

Many with­in the group are wary of se­quest­ra­tion’s de­fense budget caps, which would hold mil­it­ary spend­ing to $499 bil­lion in fisc­al 2016. The is­sue be­came a ma­jor flash­point between de­fense hawks and budget hawks earli­er this year. Many con­ser­vat­ives, to the dis­may of de­fense-minded mem­bers, are sup­port­ive of se­quest­ra­tion as a means to con­trol over­all spend­ing.

“You can’t on the one hand cri­ti­cize the pres­id­ent’s lack of for­eign policy and on the oth­er hand say you sup­port decim­at­ing our mil­it­ary,” said Rep. Adam Kin­zinger, an Air Force vet­er­an and Tues­day Group mem­ber who is un­com­mit­ted in the ma­jor­ity-lead­er race. “The two are not con­gru­ent, and so that’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing dy­nam­ic in the lead­er­ship race. The most im­port­ant thing in my mind is who’s go­ing to be open to ac­tu­ally hav­ing the dis­cus­sion about mak­ing our mil­it­ary stronger.”

The is­sue is provid­ing per­haps the most co­her­ent con­trast between Scal­ise and Price. De­fense hawks feuded with Price earli­er this year when he wanted to off­set off-budget coun­terter­ror­ism spend­ing in the House budget, fund­ing that oth­er mem­bers wanted to use to plus-up mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions. That feud is already driv­ing at least some of the mod­er­ate mem­bers to Scal­ise’s side. En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton, a Tues­day Group founder, an­nounced his sup­port for Scal­ise Tues­day af­ter­noon.

Rep. Mike Turn­er, an­oth­er Tues­day Group mem­ber who led an ef­fort to push for a de­fense-spend­ing boost in the budget, said he has as­sur­ances from Scal­ise; Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy, who is run­ning for speak­er; and Rep. Patrick McHenry, who is run­ning for ma­jor­ity whip, that they will “work to set aside se­quest­ra­tion and fully fund de­fense.” Scal­ise’s of­fice did not dis­pute that as­ser­tion.

“When you look at the work that was be­ing done by the Budget Com­mit­tee this year, and it was not re­flect­ive of the con­fer­ence but a minor­ity view of the con­fer­ence, we are cer­tainly con­cerned about an en­vir­on­ment like that hav­ing con­trol of the whole floor,” Turn­er said. “We were be­ing frozen out.”

A Re­pub­lic­an aide close to Price’s cam­paign dis­puted that, however, not­ing that Price sup­ports a strong de­fense budget, and that Price would sup­port break­ing the fire­wall between de­fense and nondefense spend­ing and would keep an open line of com­mu­nic­a­tion with mem­bers if elec­ted ma­jor­ity lead­er. The aide ad­ded that Price spe­cific­ally met with Turn­er and oth­er con­cerned mem­bers in an ef­fort to find more de­fense fund­ing without leg­ally vi­ol­at­ing the spend­ing caps.

Rep. Car­los Cur­belo, an­oth­er Tues­day Group mem­ber, said he is strongly lean­ing to­ward Scal­ise as well, es­pe­cially be­cause he has been will­ing to pun­ish un­ruly mem­bers. Scal­ise has kicked sev­er­al mem­bers off of his whip team be­cause they turned against lead­er­ship on pro­ced­ur­al votes.

“Our lead­ers don’t have to be people we agree with on every single vote. Our lead­ers have to be people we trust, who are go­ing to hold our con­fer­ence ac­count­able, and who are go­ing to be hon­est with the voters about what we can achieve with­in the con­sti­tu­tion­al frame­work. And I think Steve is cer­tainly cap­able of that,” Cur­belo said.

Still, linger­ing ques­tions about Scal­ise—on his per­form­ance as whip, and wheth­er he spoke at a white-su­prem­acist rally in 2002—com­plic­ate the cal­cu­la­tion for some mem­bers. That opens up the pos­sib­il­ity that an­oth­er can­did­ate could make a last-minute jump in­to the race.

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