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GOP looks for new leadership team as jockeying begins

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World MORE said Friday he was resigning from Congress, but he didn’t have the spotlight for long.

Just hours after the Ohio Republican announced he would leave Capitol Hill next month, ambitious GOP lawmakers were already buttonholing, calling, texting and emailing their colleagues about next month’s leadership races.

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Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) blasted out an email to lawmakers Friday seeking their support in what’s expected to be a crowded race for majority whip. Eyeing the same position, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) was also burning up the phone lines.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the heavy favorite to replace Boehner as Speaker, and has already begun making calls to colleagues. Rep. Jeff Denham, a fellow California Republican, visited McCarthy’s first floor office in the Capitol Friday, telling The Hill he was “working to convince my good friend, Kevin McCarthy, to run.”

But Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said Friday evening he’ll make a run at McCarthy for the top job. And powerful Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) is “considering” a leadership bid, possibly for Speaker.

Current Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) held a conference call Friday evening to tell House vote counters that he will run for the majority leader position if McCarthy becomes Speaker, according to a source with knowledge of the call.

Groups of lawmakers huddled in and around the Capitol throughout the day, seeking ways to influence the races. Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) hosted some of the 25-member GOP Texas delegation in his office, courting their support for majority leader, the No. 2 job. When some colleagues objected, Sessions proposed he run for majority whip, said a Texas source familiar with the meeting. But that offer also was met with “vocal objection.”

“There were members of the delegation who were opposed to both,” the Texas source said.

The flurry of public and behind-the-scenes jockeying will continue over the weekend and possibly in the weeks to come as candidates prepare for an unexpected, high-stakes leadership race not even midway through the 114th Congress.

After nearly five years as Speaker, Boehner told stunned rank-and-file GOP lawmakers in a tearful speech Friday morning that he would resign from Congress at the end of October. His decision ends his longstanding fight with Tea Party rebels who have been trying to oust him from power for years.

Elections have not yet been scheduled, but they’re expected to be held sometime before Boehner officially steps down.

In addition to the Texas delegation meeting, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus met for several hours on Friday. The band of 40-plus House conservatives plans to meet with each leadership candidate before settling on any endorsements.

"We will not support anybody publicly until we sit down and meet with all of the candidates," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), a Freedom Caucus co-founder.

Some in the conservative group acknowledged they might not be able to install one of their own into the leadership hierarchy. But they believe the caucus represents a powerful voting bloc that could tilt the leadership races in their favor.

"I don’t think that the conservative wing of the party has enough mass to get one of our own elected. We certainly have enough mass to influence the outcome," said another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).

In recent weeks, Freedom Caucus members have held informal discussions about backing a leadership slate that would include McCarthy as Speaker, with conservatives running for down-ballot spots. One conservative lawmaker even discussed those plans with McCarthy in a phone call over the August recess, and told the majority leader he would have his support if Boehner stepped aside.

Those eyeing leadership races know they have to move quickly, or risk falling behind would-be competitors.

One McCarthy backer, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), told reporters Friday afternoon that he was already getting phone calls from colleagues seeking support for leadership slots.

Several GOP lawmakers said they had received a call Friday from Mullin, a backbencher who was only elected in 2012. Ross simply sent a mass email to all of his colleagues, saying he’ll be reaching out in the coming days about his bid for GOP whip.

“I have long said that we cannot simply be the ‘Party of No,” Ross, a former Florida state lawmaker, wrote in the email. “Republicans in Congress must offer credible alternatives to Obamacare, we must take up immigration reform that secures our border, and we must cut spending, balance our budget and reform our tax code so that Americans have more money in their pockets.”

Because the elections are being held in the middle of the two-year term, it’s unclear what leadership spots actually will be available. If an outsider like Hensarling or Webster wins the Speaker’s race, McCarthy would remain as majority leader, Scalise would stay as whip and McMorris Rodgers would keep her job as conference chairwoman.

Another scenario: If McCarthy wins the Speaker’s gavel and Scalise beats McMorris Rodgers in the leader race, she would continue serving as conference chairwoman through the end of next year.

Many of Boehner’s close allies said they couldn’t focus on the leadership races because they were still digesting the news that the Speaker, first elected to Congress in 1990, was calling it quits. Boehner, a practicing Catholic, had one of his happiest moments just a day before, hosting Pope Francis for a historic address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“It was a stunner,” said one close Boehner friend, “and we didn’t expect it so quickly after the pope.” 

Facing reporters Friday afternoon, Boehner gave a ringing endorsement to McCarthy, his top deputy.

“Listen, I'm not going to be here to vote on the next Speaker, but that's up to the members,” the Speaker said. “But having said that, I think that Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent Speaker.”

 — Cristina Marcos contributed.