The five candidates for a pair of key House leadership posts made formal pitches to their colleagues on Wednesday, pledging a more inclusive style that cedes power back to committee chairmen.
In a lightly-attended closed-door session, rank-and-file members peppered Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) with questions about how they’d run the House floor if elected by the conference to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was defeated in a primary last week.
They did the same to Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), the three candidates to take over for McCarthy as majority whip if he moves up the leadership ladder, as is expected.
The elections are Thursday, and the candidate forum was one of many private meetings the contenders zipped in and out of as they scoured the conference for increasingly scarce undecided voters.
While McCarthy remained a heavy favorite over Labrador, the whip race appeared headed for the wire, and the candidates’ focus turned to a possible second ballot if none of the three candidates earns a majority of the 233-member conference.
“We’re in a really good spot, and we’re going to continue working to get votes from the few undecideds that are remaining,” Scalise said as he left the meeting. “I’m not going to stop until this race is over.”
“We’ve always said, whether there’s a first ballot, second ballot, if there’s a third ballot, we’re working all the way through, and we’ve got a plan for each contingency,” he added.
Scalise’s camp has claimed to have around 100 votes, and a top Roskam supporter, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), said the Illinois Republican had around 90, up from 60 last week. Stutzman’s bloc is smaller, drawn from the conference’s most ardent conservatives.
The vote is a secret ballot, and Hudson said each team had to account for the “fudge factor” of members who commit their support to multiple candidates.
“We feel really good about the second ballot,” Hudson said of Roskam’s camp. “I don’t know if we’re at 120 yet, but we feel really good about the second ballot.”
Stutzman, considered the dark-horse candidate for majority whip, argued a second round of voting would help him.
"I think we get to the second ballot. All bets are off," Stutzman said. "Once we get to the second ballot, people are gonna say, 'You know what? Whoa. I didn't realize.' "
Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is gunning for an outright win, and he knocked his opponents’ push to force a second ballot. “If you’re opponent’s main strategy is to come in second, then I’m here to help them achieve their goal,” he told reporters.
Roskam, currently McCarthy’s chief deputy, ignored questions from reporters after the meeting.
McCarthy ducked out before a leadership press conference. He told The Hill he was feeling good but wouldn't make a prediction. "You know we don't talk about vote counts," the whip said with a smile.
Inside the room, Labrador made a pitch similar to the one he has made in public: Republicans cannot respond to Cantor’s stunning defeat by keeping the “status quo.”
Recalling a conversation he had with Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), a supporter, he said many members felt irrelevant, and he complained that the leadership lacked a “clear, bold vision.” The GOP majority, he said, had broken its promise to make bills public for three days before voting on them.
Labrador ran through a number of policy and procedural grievances that conservatives have aired about the leadership team of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Cantor and McCarthy.
“I don’t want any more SGR bills passing on voice votes, Transportation/Postal Reform deals that nobody has heard of, NSA reform bills that pass a committee unanimously and are changed and watered down in the Rules Committee,” he said, according to prepared remarks released by his office. “If we don’t trust leadership, how can we trust each other?”
Members asked McCarthy and Labrador about a long list of procedural and policy issues, including whether they would commit to the so-called “Hastert rule” mandating that only bills with majority Republican support come up for a vote.
According to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), McCarthy quipped that he would adhere to his own, “McCarthy rule”: “Get as many votes as you can.”
In response to another question, members said, McCarthy told lawmakers he would defer to the Financial Services Committee on the Export Import Bank, which expires at the end of September and has become a flashpoint between establishment and Tea Party Republicans. Cantor helped negotiate the last extension of the lending agency, while Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) wants to let its charter expire.
The push for more inclusiveness and committee authority was embraced by each of the candidates, members said.
“There’s a lot of concern about regular order, about members being relevant, members having a voice,” Hudson said. “I heard from all five candidates a commitment to that.”
The conference turned aside, with a loud “No!” voice vote, a motion by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) to delay the leadership elections by a week.
“We’re rushing into this,” he told reporters after. Yoho is backing Labrador and Stutzman, two candidates who are lesser-known to their colleagues than the more established McCarthy and Roskam.
“I’ve got members coming up to me and saying, ‘I don’t know Raul. I don’t know Marlin,’ ” Yoho said. “And for us to rush into that, I just think it’s wrong.”
Nevertheless, he said he respected the GOP’s decision.
“I felt comfortable with the way it turned out,” Yoho said. “It was pretty resounding.”
The closed-door candidate forum began at 8 a.m., though attendance was relatively sparse before the regular conference meeting began an hour later.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) estimated that only about 50 members of the 233-member GOP conference were in attendance initially, which he called "disappointing."
Salmon said that there was no discussion of specific bills that the candidates would like to bring the floor. But he said there was widespread agreement that many members were frustrated with the current leadership team.
"Almost all the members that asked the questions expressed a frustration with the way things are, the status quo, with leadership," Salmon said. "I think that there was an agreement across the board that we're very, very frustrated that it's just a handful of people that make all the decisions."
Candidates met later in the morning with southern lawmakers after attending sessions with the Pennsylvania delegation and members of the 2010 GOP class on Tuesday.
— This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.