By Russell Berman - 05/20/14 06:00 AM EDT
If Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) wants to fuel speculation that he’s going to make a run for Speaker later this year, he’ll have his chance on Tuesday.
Hensarling served in the GOP leadership under Boehner and Cantor through 2012, but since taking over the Financial Services panel last year, he has parted ways with the Speaker on a number of important votes and battled behind the scenes with Cantor on a flood insurance bill earlier this year.
Under pressure from Republicans in coastal states, Cantor went around Hensarling and negotiated a deal to prevent rate hikes with the liberal ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.). In response, Hensarling and a majority of Republican committee chairmen voted against the bill on the floor.
Hensarling is now trying to assert his committee’s jurisdiction over the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which will expire without congressional action at the end of September. Cantor helped negotiate the last Ex-Im reauthorization in 2012, but he has told associates he does not plan to get involved this time around.
Hensarling’s venue on Tuesday is as noteworthy as his topic. Long one of the capital’s most influential conservative think tanks, Heritage and its political arm, Heritage Action, have become openly hostile to the House GOP leadership over the last two years.
Hensarling plans to use his speech to make the case against Ex-Im, a federal credit agency Boehner has backed. Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham called it the “purest form of corporate cronyism that exists in the federal government.”
Democrats and a number of Republicans, along with business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, have long argued that the bank supports domestic job creation by helping U.S. companies reach markets overseas. But critics say it’s simply another example of corporate welfare that disproportionately benefits a few companies, most notably Boeing.
The push against Ex-Im is part of a broader campaign championed by conservatives such as Hensarling and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to inject a dose of economic populism into the GOP and move it away from big business.
“If you’re not willing to look Fortune 50 companies in the eye and saying maybe you should be paying a marginal tax rate higher than 0 percent, or maybe you shouldn’t be getting taxpayer-backed loan guarantees, you really kind of lose the moral high ground to make the other sorts of changes that need to happen,” Needham said.
“The first party to say, ‘We’re on the side of the people, not the ruling class,’ will be the party that has sustained success going forward,” he added.
A former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Hensarling is a solid fundraiser who has already shown he can win a conferencewide leadership race.
While he has said he has spent no time thinking about a leadership bid, Hensarling pointedly declined to rule out a run for Speaker during an interview last week on the “Hugh Hewitt Show.”
“If you’re asking me to be Shermanesque, you know, I’m not sure they would ever invite me to play drums with Led Zeppelin, but you know, I’m not going to say no, just in case the invitation comes,” he said. “I’m going to wait until after November and decide what is it I can do to help advance the cause of freedom and free enterprise the best. And I’ll look around and see what I can do.”
Needham, who will introduce Hensarling at Heritage on Tuesday, called the six-term lawmaker “a great conservative leader but declined to say whether he should challenge Boehner or Cantor.
“We don’t have an opinion on that,” he said. “We haven’t gotten involved in leadership races in the past, and I don’t see us getting involved in leadership races going forward.”
In interviews, current and former leadership aides were skeptical that Hensarling would want the job of Speaker, noting that he appeared to be unhappy during his stint in the GOP leadership as conference chairman.
Hensarling is seen as a bit of a mystery man on K Street as well. “He keeps his cards very close to his vest,” one GOP lobbyist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
One potential liability for Hensarling is the bumpy first year and a half he’s had as chairman of the Financial Services panel. In addition to losing the flood insurance battle, his sweeping housing finance plan to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has stalled after winning committee approval nearly 10 months ago.
The struggles have raised the question of whether he can find enough consensus, even among Republicans, to govern effectively.
Hensarling’s predecessor as chairman, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), said he had done “an admirable job,” but had suffered from a lack of communication with the leadership at times.
“Jeb is never going to compromise his principles. He is more ideological than I am,” Bachus said.
“I think that Jeb is a legislator, and his primary goal is good legislation,” he added. “When you get to be chairman, all of a sudden, sometimes you have to be practical. I think he’s getting there.”