By Russell Berman - 06/11/14 04:23 PM EDT
The jockeying among Republicans to replace Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) as House majority leader began Wednesday within hours of his stunning primary loss and escalated when he announced he would step down early from his leadership post.
Ambitious Republicans began working the phones, holding meetings and pigeonholing colleagues to line up support for their bids for two potential openings: majority leader and whip.
The current majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), faced an immediate challenge from Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in his expected bid to become majority leader, the second-ranking leadership job behind Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Sessions cited his experience as chairman of the Rules Committee and before that as the House GOP campaign chief as his qualifications for the job.
With the issue of immigration seen as a factor in Cantor’s defeat, the conservative Texan said he would focus on border security — an indication he would be unlikely to work with Democrats on a broader overhaul to provide citizenship to illegal immigrants.
“I think my strength is that I am a well-known conservative who will push for and want to have an agenda that I will go get the votes that is conservative, that is pro-business and solves the problems of the country,” Sessions said. “And I think that our focus on that will need to start with the border.”
Yet Sessions moved so quickly that he may have irritated some members, who reported receiving a text message from him 20 minutes after Cantor’s defeat became official.
“How about waiting until the body's at the morgue?” one member said.
McCarthy opted to wait until Cantor had made his decision before campaigning to be the next majority leader, according to a source who was in McCarthy's office late Tuesday night.
“McCarthy said ‘We're not doing anything until Eric does what Eric's going to do, we're going to give him room to make his decision,’” the source told The Hill.
In announcing his decision to step down, Cantor made clear that McCarthy would have his full support if he chooses to run for majority leader.
The fast election could benefit McCarthy, a fellow GOP “Young Gun” who has spent years building up his base of support within the conference. Lawmakers also said they did not want a drawn-out election to distract from their agenda and leave time for outside conservative groups to try to influence the outcome.
Boehner is officially neutral, spokesman Michael Steel said.
“We have important work to do and need to get the new leadership team in place as soon as possible,” he said. “And he has not endorsed anyone in any race.”
Inside the meeting where Cantor announced his decision, Boehner made clear that he would run for Speaker again in the 114th Congress, lawmakers said.
Another Texas conservative, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, was also considering a bid for majority leader. Currently chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Hensarling served in the leadership until 2013 but has frequently voted against Boehner and Cantor in the year-and-a-half since he left.
Hensarling has played coy in recent weeks when asked whether he might challenge or seek to succeed Boehner.
“I am humbled by the many people who have approached me about serving our Republican Conference in a different capacity in the future,” he said. “There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts.”
Hensarling would have the support of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a vocal second-term conservative who is gunning to be chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the next Congress.
If McCarthy succeeds in the election to replace Cantor, his position would open up and the race for that potential post also heated up: Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) moved rapidly to challenge Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip who has been eyeing the spot for months.
“He’s in for the whip’s race,” a source close to Roskam said on Wednesday.
Scalise is chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and a GOP aide said on Wednesday that as soon as Cantor’s loss became official, he began receiving calls from colleagues urging him to run for majority whip.
“Obviously, no one saw Leader Cantor losing yesterday,” the aide said. “It was a tectonic shift that caught everyone off guard.”
Scalise had been laying the groundwork for the race in the event Boehner decided to retire at year’s end, but he is now prepared to run whenever the opening occurs.
“Regardless of Leader Cantor’s position, he’s ready to go,” the aide said.
Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), a close Boehner ally, told reporters that the Texas GOP delegation was meeting to discuss leadership possibilities, with both Sessions and Hensarling being discussed as potential Cantor replacements.
Tiberi declined to endorse any candidates, but made it clear he was a fan of McCarthy and Roskam and that they had strong chances to move up the leadership pecking order.
“They both have a very successful tenure in their positions in leadership, and I think they have a lot of support within the conference generally speaking for the job that they’ve done,” Tiberi said.
If McCarthy loses his bid to become majority leader, the position of whip would not open up.
Amid the jockeying, the fourth-ranking Republican, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), announced Wednesday that she would stay put rather than seek a promotion.
“After much encouragement from my colleagues, conversations with my family, and many prayers, I have decided to remain conference chair at this time,” said McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking Republican woman.
Also staying out of the races will be Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget chief and 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee.
“I’m not interested,” he told reporters.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another respected conservative and former RSC chairman, also told The Hill he did not plan to run for any of the open positions.
The emerging battles will pit establishment Republicans close to Boehner like McCarthy and Roskam against conservatives likely to push the party further to the right.
Lawmakers frustrated with the current leadership have spoken for months about the need to have more representation at the top from members who hail from deeply Republican states. Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy and McMorris Rodgers all represent states that President Obama carried in the last two presidential elections.
“I think that when all of the key leaders are from blue and purple states, and the rank and file are from red states, it creates some tension, or miscommunications, or misunderstandings that occur in our conference right now,” Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “So I am hopeful that somewhere in the mix of new leadership there will be a strong red state advocate who is more reflective of the type of Republican that I represent.”
—This story was updated at 6:29 p.m.
Molly K. Hooper, Bernie Becker, Erik Wasson, Peter Schroeder and Cristina Marcos contributed.