By Russell Berman, Erik Wasson, Mike Lillis and Molly K. Hooper - 06/12/14 02:52 PM EDT
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Thursday moved closer to sealing a victory in the race to succeed Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was defeated Tuesday in a historic primary loss.
The shift toward McCarthy comes as a conservative favorite, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), passed on the majority leader race Thursday morning. Meanwhile, another Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), was struggling to keep up with McCarthy, currently the third-ranking House Republican.
Sessions and his allies in the Texas delegation early in the afternoon moved to squash rumblings, cited by two House conservatives, that Sessions would drop his bid altogether.
Exiting a delegation meeting in the Capitol, the former House GOP campaign chief made clear he was running to help unite the conference and give conservatives a greater voice.
“I am running for majority leader on an agenda that can bring us together and to start with an agenda that is more red-state oriented,” Sessions said.
When a reporter asked him if McCarthy had the race locked him, Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) jumped in with a swipe at their fallen leader: "Eric Cantor thought he had it locked up too back in his own district," Weber said.
Republicans said division within the Texas delegation about which candidate to back had allowed McCarthy time to consolidate his support and virtually ensure a victory in the election, which will be held in one week, on June 19.
“I don’t know that there’s much of a race at this point,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said around midday, adding that he heard on the floor that Sessions was dropping out.
Rep. John Carter argued that the Texas delegation is “united in our effort” to help Sessions in the race.
“It's just getting started, but I feel very confident,” he said.
Hensarling gave Sessions his backing, but fissures remained within the delegation, the largest in the House GOP. Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.) said she was behind McCarthy, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) told reporters he would stay out of the race despite his close ties to several of the House’s most ardent conservatives.
Sessions, Carter said, was the best choice for the job because he would bring “fresh blood” to leadership. He also touted his work leading the GOP to monumental wins in 2010, as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
He admitted, however, that McCarthy has a lead.
“Whoever's out first is ahead, but that doesn't mean they're gonna win,” he said. “You just have to work hard.”
The vote is a secret ballot, and public commitments can disappear quickly behind closed doors.
“Commitments are very soft around here – the ‘yeses’ are, anyway,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said. “I've heard a lot stories of people saying that they've had plenty of votes going in, but they lose. So apparently the 'no’s' are much more solid than the ‘yeses.’”
Fleming said he’s undecided, because he's holding out for a more conservative candidate to emerge.
“I wouldn't be surprised if one pops up,” he said. “Because, you know, Sessions and McCarthy are really coming from the Boehner organization. ... So I don't think the full cadre is quite set yet.”
One House Republican, speaking only anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic, suggested that GOP leaders had plotted from the beginning to plant Sessions in the race in order to discourage more viable conservative members from running and solidifying a McCarthy victory.
“Pete Sessions is just being a tool of leadership,” the member said. “He's staying in there long enough to make it look like there's a race.”
Conservatives lost other potential alternatives when Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Tom Price (R-Ga.), both former RSC leaders, declined to make bids for either position.
A pair of House conservatives called for a a delay in the leadership election for a new majority leader.
Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said Thursday that the currently scheduled leadership election should be postponed so that the GOP conference can field a candidate who does not support “amnesty.”
“We don't have the lineup of conservative rule of law candidates in place. So we're asking for a delay in this vote so there's time for the conference to come to its senses and evaluate all of the opportunities that we have going forward,” King said just off the House floor.
At a press conference Thursday, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged that some members might think he scheduled the leadership election too soon, but he wanted the party to move quickly back to its agenda.
“It’s important we resolve this issue in a fair amount of time so that we can do the work we were elected to do,” he said.
As McCarthy surged, the campaign to replace him as whip intensified.
Conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) joined the field on Thursday morning, surprising rank-and-file Republicans who were focusing on a two-man race between the chief deputy whip, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Scalise had appeared to be pulling away from Roskam, as he became the choice of conservatives who wanted one of their own in the leadership and were resigned to McCarthy becoming majority leader.
But as another member of the RSC, Stutzman threatened to split the conservative vote and give Roskam new life. Scalise allies privately told The Hill they believed Stutzman did not have a path to victory and that his entry was more about boosting his chances to lead the RSC, a large conservative bloc.
“I think everyone was a little surprised,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a Scalise supporter who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “It’s pretty late in the game.”
As members voted on tax bills before heading home for the weekend, the House floor was a frenzy of activity.
Candidates for the open leadership positions bounced from colleague to colleague on the floor in an attempt to build support.
McCarthy glided from conservatives such as Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga) and centrist Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Penn), cajoling them for their vote.
He compared tally lists with Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) – a surrogate who spoke with him as the chamber cleared.
Sessions also made the rounds, speaking with Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.)
But the busiest leadership hopefuls were the contenders for majority whip — the position that McCarthy would vacate should the conference promote him to leader.
Tally list in hand, Scalise bounded from one lawmaker to the next, comparing notes with surrogate Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio.)
Roskam also lobbied colleagues, while Stutzman cruised around the floor looking for backers.
Alexandra Jaffe, Peter Schroeder and Cristina Marcos contributed.
— This post was posted at 1:20 p.m. adn updated at 2:52 p.m.