House Republicans gathered for the first time since Speaker John Boehner announced that he would resign from Congress next month – and they didn’t resolve any of the issues that led to Boehner’s resignation in the face of frequent rebellions by a group of about 40 conservative backbenchers who formed the House Freedom Caucus (HFC).
“You had people on both sides, some saying ‘you’re bringing down rules, but you’re not offering your own candidate;’ and the other side saying ‘look, we have a legitimate right to exist just like the [moderate Republican] Tuesday Group does,’” House Homeland Security chairman Michael McCaul tells National Review. “I think it’s important that the next speaker and majority leader find a way to connect to the 40-or-so.” A series of speeches on the need for regular order in the legislative process — “motherhood and apple pie,” as another House Republican describes it – did not achieve that.
Behind the scenes, there’s less placidity than “motherhood and apple pie” suggests. One lawmakers estimates he received 140 phone calls and text messages from colleagues over the weekend. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) certainly will be the leading vote-getter in the speaker’s race, but he could still face a a nasty floor fight if the backbenchers who forced Boehner out refuse to concede defeat. At the same time, his expected victory is setting the stage for a heavyweight match between fiscal conservatives and national security hawks in the ensuing majority leader’s race, which pits House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (R. Ga.) against House Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.).
McCarthy is in a commanding position in the speaker’s race; one House conservative predicted he’ll receive at least 125 votes when the House Republicans hold their private election. Another lawmaker suggests he’s already locked up as many as 180 votes. But he faces the same problem as Boehner: Victory in the speaker’s race, unlike any other leadership election, entails winning a vote on the House floor in which 188 Democrats will vote against him as a matter of course. That means that the “40-or-so” HFC members could deny him the support needed to claim the gavel if they also voted against him.
It’s not clear what would induce them to grant their support, in part because HFC hasn’t decided what they want. There’s also lingering distrust for McCarthy, as HFC members tend to believe that he tricked Representative Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.) into rescuing the much-maligned “cromnibus” spending bill last December with a decisive procedural vote.
“McCarthy doesn’t have 218, so it’s far from clear he’ll be elected,” says one member of the HFC. Another tells NR that only one lawmaker in the caucus has agreed to back the McCarthy.
#share#That tension has ramifications for the majority-leader race, and not just because that seat will be vacated under current House rules only if McCarthy wins the speaker’s race. It also raises questions about whether House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the former Republican Study Committee chairman, could be an effective majority leader. “He was elected to whip primarily because he did have that connection to the more conservative groups and the Heritage Action types to help them get an agenda through,” as one veteran House Republican says. The ongoing drama with HFC makes it easy for Tom Price, the leading alternative for majority leader, to argue that the Scalise experiment has failed.
In a conference as large as the current Republican majority, that issue cuts both ways. “[Scalise]’s got a lot of support from the center . . . even though he came out of the RSC,” says one member of the moderate Tuesday Group, which is approximately the same size as the HFC.
#related#For his part, Price enjoys the public support of House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and of House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, who are very well respected by conservative lawmakers and the mainstream of the conference. On the other side of the ledger, though, he has feuded with national-security hawks, and history shows they have the clout in the conference to hand him embarrassing defeats. Most recently, the budget that Price wrote in his committee received only 105 votes because House Armed Services Committee members whipped against the legislation. Scalise, notably, is rumored to be telling HASC members that he will support lifting the budget caps in order to increase defense spending if he is elected majority leader.
There’s a final wrinkle that may favor Scalise: he keeps his job as whip under the current House rules even if he loses the majority leader’s race. If that rule isn’t changed — and the idea was raised at the Tuesday conference meeting of changing the rules to require every seat to see a fresh contest when the speaker’ race takes place — then everyone who hopes to succeed him as majority whip has an incentive to vote for him and tell their friends to do the same.
“It’s going to be a close race for majority leader,” says one veteran Republican. “I just want stability.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.