A trio of House Republicans are intensely fighting for one of the taller tasks in Washington — corralling House Republicans.
Time and again, GOP lawmakers have shown the current House majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the limit of his powers, by either voting down key bills or forcing leaders to pull legislation from the floor.
“The job of whipping members isn’t going to get any easier because the issues are only going to get more difficult,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who worked under former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “There are very few carrots and sticks for the whip to motivate members.”
That difficult job appears to be coming open as McCarthy builds a significant lead to succeed Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) after his shocking primary loss Tuesday. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) dropped out Thursday evening, but Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) threw his hat in the ring Friday to make a late conservative case.
But the race to replace McCarthy is looking like the real fight. The three hopefuls are in constant communication with their colleagues, trying to line up support before Thursday’s closed-door, secret ballot leadership election.
That task was complicated further Thursday, when Stutzman entered what had been a two-man race between Roskam and Scalise. There's chatter around Capitol Hill that at least a fourth Republican, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.), could be considering a bid as well.
McCarthy, well-liked by his colleagues, isn’t having trouble locking up support for his bid to move up the leadership ladder. But trying to do the same for contentious bills on the House floor led to plenty of rocky moments.
The Tea Party turn
Republicans took control of the House in 2010 on the back of the Tea Party, but corralling the influx of staunch conservatives has proved to be a consistent challenge since then.
Growing pressure from outside conservative groups, a ban on earmarks that once were bargaining chips, and an increasingly partisan landscape have made the caucus increasingly difficult to whip over the last several years.
On multiple occasions, Republican leaders have spent days cajoling colleagues to back legislation, searching for a compromise measure that would be acceptable to most of the party, only to see bills yanked just before votes due to insufficient support from the right flank.
That happened in 2011, when hours of late-night arm-twisting over a bill to hike the debt limit failed to yield the needed GOP votes. House leaders had to scrap a bill they nearly brought to the floor, tweaking it to add a balanced budget amendment to eventually win enough Republican backing.
And as the nation neared the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had to scrap what was already billed as the GOP’s “Plan B” because it lacked party support, pushing the Senate and White House to work something out.
In August, House leaders had to cancel a vote on an appropriations bill, saying they simply ran out of time. But Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) charged Republicans were unwilling to tolerate the deep cuts demanded by the budget they passed months earlier.
It’s even been rocky even when bills have reached the floor. A year ago, a farm bill expected to pass was surprisingly defeated by a combination of Democrats upset about food stamp cuts and Republicans unhappy with its overall price tag.
Other times, GOP leaders have had to look to a combination of mostly Democrats and a smattering of Republicans to get a bill through the chamber. For instance, a House measure to provide relief to Hurricane Sandy victims received backing from just 49 Republicans, as conservatives argued its costs should be offset with other spending cuts.
Sometimes the challenge of aligning GOP support led to the downright bizarre. In March, House leaders had to pass a bill to preserve Medicare payments to doctors known as the “doc fix” by a quick voice vote, literally sneaking the bill through while members’ backs were turned. Members from both parties said they would have opposed the bill for various reasons, while Cantor was loudly criticized by his rank-and-file for the gambit.
Campaigning for a solution
Well aware of the challenges that come with the job, those pushing to replace McCarthy are selling skills they say are critical to fixing the process.
A source in Scalise’s camp argued the relationships he has cultivated with conservatives as head of the Republican Study Committee would be a boon, allowing him to work with potential “no” votes and turning them into “ayes.”
But Scalise himself is no stranger to voting against GOP leaders’ wishes. For example, he voted against the 2011 deal to raise the debt ceiling, as well as the agreement to avert the fiscal cliff. While the source said Scalise is confident he can strike that “delicate balance,” his own dissenting votes highlight the complexities within the conference.
Stutzman has admitted his bid is a long shot but told local media his red-state roots and “fresh face” are winning factors.
Roskam is pitching himself as the experienced, competent candidate, even though that meant being at McCarthy’s side for a string of floor defeats.
The current chief deputy whip, in a Friday letter to colleagues, also pushed back against Republicans who have resisted putting together a leadership team made up exclusively of states that lean Democratic, while also committing to installing a red-state Republican as his chief deputy.
"At this tumultuous time for our conference, I think it is more important to have the skills necessary to line up votes than to check a geographical box," Roskam wrote.
A source close to Roskam insisted the four-term lawmaker would be able to overcome any disadvantage caused by his blue-state roots.
“This is not an ideological position,“ the source said. “You have to reach out to every member of the conference – not just those from below the Mason-Dixon line – to put a coalition together.”
“He knows how to get to 218,” the source added about Roskam.
Aides to lawmakers supporting Roskam also made the case that Scalise would be in a tough position if he won whip job – probably unable to shift legislation to the right enough to win over his conservative allies, and then forced to try to sell those priorities.
In fact, one aide said that whoever wins the No. 3 slot will inherit a thankless job, with little chance for a higher success rate than McCarthy.
“It isn't relationships that gets those guys,” the aide said about Scalise’s assertion that he could win over conservative holdouts. “It is the policy”.
Bonjean wasn’t much more optimistic: “It’s very difficult, but it is possible.”
--This report was updated on June 15th at 1:35 a.m.