Conservatives dissatisfied with their new leadership team are biding their time for what could become a bitter battle for control of the conference after the midterm elections.
The official message coming out of Thursday’s leadership election was one of unity, with many Republicans praising their new majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and his new vote-counter, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
“I don't think grassroots Republicans are going to be satisfied with the outcome today,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a conservative who has frequently clashed with leadership.
He noted that Scalise would be tasked with corralling votes for McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Conservatives had hoped to install one of their own as majority leader, since the position controls what legislation reaches the House floor.
“The whip's role is to push the agenda of the Speaker and the majority leader. So I don't think it has as much of an impact as it might if we had a conservative member in the top two spots,” Amash said.
Having Scalise in the GOP’s third-ranked spot is certainly a move toward the right from McCarthy, who is seen as more of a pro-business Republican. McCarthy also represents a district with a large Hispanic population and is viewed with suspicion by some members opposed to comprehensive immigration reform.
As head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Scalise’s camp billed him as the antithesis of Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip painted as the “establishment” pick.
But Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s (R-Ind.) late entry into the whip race was widely seen as a sign of dissatisfaction among some conservatives about Scalise’s bona fides with the right. Many conservatives saw Scalise as leadership’s pick to lead the Republican Study Committee.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said Scalise would make a great whip, but he doubted Scalise would be able to steer the agenda in a different direction.
“You have to keep in mind, I did vote for Scalise, even though I don’t think he satisfies the need to have somebody in leadership who can have conversations with the conservative part of the conference,” Massie said.
Scalise backers argue that his presence in leadership guarantees a rightward voice at the top, which could help nudge bills their way.
“Hopefully, he has a voice at the leadership table where he will have influence and to suggest to the Speaker and the leader that, if you want to have more votes, you need to move a bit more to the right,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.). “I have confidence he will do that.”
Others said conservatives were given a fair shot at making their voices heard.
“Don’t confuse the volume with the numbers. Sometimes the volume is a bit louder than the number,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “If it bothers you that much, then you can run.”
“If some people aren’t happy with the current leadership team, they could have put forward other candidates to reflect their dissatisfaction,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a centrist Republican from Pennsylvania. “But they didn’t, so we’re moving forward.”
Gowdy said the talk of divisions within the party was overplayed. After losing their races, both Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Roskam threw their support to the winners and asked for the votes to be considered unanimous.
“I know that this is not the narrative people want to hear, but there’s less dissention in that room than y’all probably would imagine,” Gowdy said.
Yet lawmakers also said they expect another scramble for top positions after the November elections. And that contest could be far more volatile.
While Boehner has vowed to run for another term as Speaker, it’s not clear whether he would have the support needed to win. Some conservatives expect him to retire, starting what would likely be a fierce battle for the gavel and the direction of the conference.
“I don’t think he runs,” Labrador, who was defeated by McCarthy in the majority leader’s contest, said at an event held in conjunction with the Heritage Foundation.
Both Roskam and Labrador refused to rule out another leadership run on Thursday, although lawmakers noted that the incumbents would have the edge when ballots are next cast, given their control over carrots like committee assignments.
“We’ll still have our ups and downs, but suffice it to say, for now, we came out of the room unified,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.). “Coming this late in the cycle, I think the sentiment was, ‘Let’s not lose momentum.’ ”
But Boustany added: “After the November elections, all bets are off.”
— Cristina Marcos and Bernie Becker contributed to this story.