House Republicans Thursday afternoon approved a major reshuffling of their top leadership after Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat last week in a Virginia GOP primary contest. The reshuffling marked an important concession to Tea Party conservatives from southern red states who say they’ve been ignored for too long. More importantly, it likely sets the stage for a future power struggle when House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, 64, finally steps down.
As widely anticipated, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, an affable, pragmatic establishment Republican from California, was overwhelmingly elected new majority leader to succeed Cantor later this summer. McCarthy, a close ally of Cantor’s who gradually warmed to Boehner over the years, wasted little time after Cantor’s fall in securing the support of most House Republicans.
McCarthy, a former deli restaurant owner who rose quickly in the House over the past few years, used his deputy whips and a sophisticated vote counting system to defeat his lone challenger, Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, an arch conservative and relative congressional newcomer.
“I’ve always had to struggle for whatever we’ve wanted to overcome,” McCarthy said after his victory. “That’s the greatest part about America, that they always give you the privilege and the opportunity.”
The real question was about McCarthy’s replacement in the whip’s post. That was resolved when members chose Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a Tea Party champion and the leading spokesperson for the most conservative House members. The fight for the highly prized number 3 spot pitted Scalise against two GOP Midwesterners, Reps. Peter Roskam of Illinois and Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana.
Scalise’s sudden ascent after eight years in Congress was born of Cantor’s once-unimaginable loss in Virginia to economics professor Dave Brat. Brat’s populist victory energized Tea Party activists and put pressure on party leaders and rank-and-file members to recalibrate their stands on immigration reform and other hot-button issues – and shift even further to the right to avoid incurring the wrath of conservatives.
The big question was whether the far right could capitalize on Brat’s victory by demanding a prominent seat at the leadership table. .
Thursday’s election of Scalise – which some said had Boehner’s unspoken blessing – solves a short-term headache for the party by placating a southern bloc of Republicans who have wanted greater influence over policy and strategy, according to The Washington Post. Scalise emphasized his southern roots in wooing support and stressed that without him as whip, the top leadership would be controlled by Republicans from blue and purple states – not red.
Scalise, a former Louisiana lawmaker, has served in Congress since 2008 and chairs the 176-member House Republican Study Committee, the most conservative and outspoken faction of the party. The committee includes some members who were suspected of plotting in April to force Boehner out of the speakership, according to The National Journal.
In campaigning for the whip’s position, Scalise spoke to nearly all 233 GOP colleagues, Politico reported, and deployed a 48-member whip team to take the temperature of members the closer they got to Thursday’s election. Much of his strength was derived from the South and the massive Texas delegation, but he also corralled committee chairs and leadership – including GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA).
Scalise is now well positioned to create a beachhead for the most conservative elements within the Republican leadership. He will be critical to the success or failure of the Republicans’ legislative efforts – whatever they prove to be in the stalemated atmosphere of Capitol Hill.
While the speaker generally sets the agenda and serves as the face of the party and the majority leader devises overall strategy and the timing to send bills to the floor, the whip is responsible for networking with members, doing vote counts and getting legislation passed.
After Thursday’s secret balloting, Scalise stood with Boehner and McCarthy and vowed to be a team player to promote “new Republican solutions,” while applying pressure on the Democratic Senate and the White House to bend to their wishes.
“We’re building a really strong team – a team very representative of our entire conference,” Scalise told reporters. “Our conference [wants to] do an even better job of addressing those problems facing the country and now have the White House and Senate start working with us to join in addressing those problems.”
He added, “People want to see people in Washington work together to solve real problems.”
Just how well Scalise manages to get along with Boehner and McCarthy while still upholding conservative principles remains to be seen. Scalise arguably is more steeped in policy issues than McCarthy is and is likely to assert himself more as time goes by.
This is not to say McCarthy can’t hold his own in policy debates. When he was just a freshman, Boehner appointed him chair of the GOP Steering Committee, and later made him chair of the GOP Platform Committee in 2008.
On issues ranging from immigration reform and government spending to highway taxes and the debt ceiling, the potential for conflict within the leadership now will be much greater than when Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy ran the show.
Scalise, 48, will also be well positioned to challenge McCarthy, 49, for the speakership whenever Boehner finally decides to retire. Boehner has hinted that he is contemplating retirement, but he may choose to stick around for another two-year term. Beyond that, control of the speakership will be a wide-open proposition – triggering a power struggle between the more establishment wing of the party represented by McCarthy and Tea Party conservatives represented by Scalise.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, suggests there may be times in the coming months when the new leadership will be divided and unable to present a united front to its rank-and-file.
“What will be interesting is what happens if Boehner and McCarthy come up with a leadership position that Scalise doesn’t agree with?” he said. “Is he going to whip effectively for it? There are going to be a lot of questions about how that leadership team works together.” Ornstein added, “I don’t see in him [Scalise] the kinds of political talents that [one-time House Whip] Tom DeLay had. But I think it’s very clear this is going to create a level of tension in the leadership that’s very high.”
Ornstein noted that during the first two years of the Obama administration, there was enormous pressure between Boehner on the one hand and Cantor and McCarthy on the other before they found a way to work together. “So it’s not unprecedented, but this is going to be a different kind of tension, more an ideological one, less one over ambition,” he said.
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