Politics & Policy

Insurgent Conservatives Look to Play Kingmaker in Post-Boehner Leadership Races

House majortiy leader Kevin McCarthy (Nicholas Kamm/Getty)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) is the odds-on favorite to succeed outgoing House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), but to nail down the new job, he’ll need to reckon with the same frustrated lawmakers who precipitated Boehner’s departure.

McCarthy is already calling the conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) and asking that they commit to supporting him for speaker. For the moment, members of the HFC are rebuffing that request in order to maintain maximum leverage.

South Carolina representative Mick Mulvaney, one of the leaders of the HFC, said yesterday that while he didn’t think the group had enough clout to elect one of its own as speaker, it certainly has “enough mass to influence the outcome.

That raises the specter of negotiations in which the rowdy back-benchers could extract policy commitments from McCarthy — or even try to get him to run on a slate with a leadership candidate of their choosing — in exchange for the votes needed to make him speaker.

If McCarthy refuses to play ball with them, the HFC could deny him a majority of votes on the House floor when the speaker’s election arrives. “No one at this point could possibly have it locked up, at least on the floor,” one conservative Republican tells National Review. “The 40 members of the HFC could scuttle almost anything on the floor.”

#share#McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise nevertheless remain the favorites to move up in the leadership ranks. If that happens, it would create an opening for majority whip — a post that Florida’s Dennis Ross and Oklahoma’s Markwayne Mullin are both said to be seeking.

But there are several Republicans who might emerge as a conservative alternative for speaker or leader, which could scramble the races. Representative Daniel Webster (R., Fla.), who participated in the failed attempt to unseat Boehner in January, announced his candidacy for speaker on Friday. House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (R., Ga.) is well-respected among conservative lawmakers and expected to make a leadership bid. House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) could be a formidable candidate, if he decides to run. “Chairman Hensarling is considering his options, and I expect he will have a decision early next week,” spokeswoman Sarah Rozier said Friday.

Representative Peter Roskam is another wildcard. A former deputy whip to McCarthy, Roskam lost the majority whip’s race to Scalise when Eric Cantor’s surprising primary defeat sparked a new round of leadership elections last year. Roskam has attracted the attention of conservatives over the last few weeks, most notably for joining with Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) to convince Boehner to take up a series of bills registering the House’s opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal. Roskam argued that the Senate-preferred Iran-review process was emblematic of broader leadership failures. “This is what always happens: We decide we’re going to lose and then we negotiate backwards from there,” another House Republican quotes him as saying during the conference meeting.

If McCarthy refuses to play ball with them, the HFC could deny him a majority of votes on the House floor when the speaker’s election arrives.

Though Roskam could emerge as a factor in the leadership elections, his intentions remain murky at the moment. “In this environment, I am not announcing a run for any leadership position because I currently don’t believe our Conference or our leadership can be successful until we confront the underlying issues that have led to this moment,” the Illinois Republican wrote in an e-mail circulated to colleagues on Saturday. The e-mail was accompanied by a formal letter from Roskam to House Republican Conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, calling for a special meeting on the state of the Republican conference ahead of the leadership elections.

“If we launch headfirst into leadership elections like this is a typical succession, without ever taking the time to diagnose our current ailments, we won’t heal the fractures in a Conference that has thus far proved unleadable,” the letter reads. “Simply reshuffling the deck won’t serve our members, and it especially won’t help our next slate of leaders who will be tasked with producing better results than our leaders have so far been able to achieve.”

#related#Roskam needs 20 percent of the conference to sign on to the letter in order to trigger such a meeting under the House GOP’s rules, and his success in rallying that support could provide an indication of his potential to win a leadership race. Even if House Republicans agree that “reshuffling the deck” is a bad idea, it’s not certain that Roskam would be the clear beneficiary of that sentiment, given his reputation as a moderate Republican who served in leadership under Boehner.

It’s a testament to the appetite for someone outside leadership ranks that two Republicans mentioned Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon now running for president, as a candidate for the leadership team. “Could you imagine how excited everyone would be if we nominated Ben Carson for speaker?” one conservative lawmaker asks.

That’s not going to happen, even if it is technically permissible under House rules. But the suggestion reflects a sentiment which is common among House conservatives: The grassroots anger that led to Boehner’s resignation will not be eased by simply promoting his lieutenants, McCarthy and Scalise. “I know GOP voters wouldn’t be content” with that, one lawmaker says.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter at National Review.

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