GOP leaders jockey for affection of House conservatives

GOP leaders jockey for affection of House conservatives

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyInternet security expert: 'I don’t think it’s right to say’ tech giants are politically biased Poll: Republicans favor Scalise for Speaker; Dems favor Pelosi Jim Carrey targets McCarthy, Nunes ahead of midterms MORE (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScalisePoll: Republicans favor Scalise for Speaker; Dems favor Pelosi Trump ally suspends reelection campaign Trump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks MORE (R-La.) are jockeying for the affection of conservatives and adding to their campaign accounts ahead of a potential race to succeed retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP super PAC hits Dem House hopeful as 'Pelosi liberal' in new Kansas ad Trump revokes Brennan's security clearance The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wis.).

And they’re doing so in very public ways.

In the past week, Scalise came out with a strong statement in support of embattled Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDepartment of Education launches investigation into OSU sexual abuse allegations Jordan: More Obama-era officials should lose security clearances Election Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' MORE (R-Ohio), the influential House Freedom Caucus member who is dealing with a career-threatening scandal. A few hours later, McCarthy followed suit.

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The pair of friendly rivals then endorsed a plan to allow a vote on a progressive-backed bill that would abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — a bold strategy that was cheered by leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) because it would put the House Democratic Caucus in a tough spot.

“That’s one of the things we look for [in a Speaker], is the willingness to take up tough issues,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), a member of the RSC leadership team, told The Hill on Friday.

McCarthy and Scalise — the No. 2 and No. 3 House GOP leaders, respectively — also released impressive fundraising figures, demonstrating to their colleagues the kind of donor support they could bring with them to the chamber’s top leadership post.

Those developments are the latest examples of how each lawmaker is building goodwill among key conservative voting blocs in Congress — groups that will be crucial to winning the 218 votes needed to secure the Speaker’s gavel if Republicans retain control of the House in November.

Ryan reiterated this past week that he hopes and believes that McCarthy, his top deputy, will become his successor. McCarthy dropped out of the Speaker’s race in 2015 after he failed to win over enough conservatives, paving the way for Ryan to take the gavel.

Scalise has said he would not challenge McCarthy, who has cultivated a close relationship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL players stand in tunnel during anthem, extending protests 12 former top intel officials blast Trump's move to revoke Brennan's security clearance NYT: Omarosa believed to have as many as 200 tapes MORE. But the majority whip will be waiting in the wings if McCarthy again fails to lock down enough votes.

Publicly, both lawmakers say they are focused on helping Republicans maintain their majority. Their offices have each emphasized that their actions aren’t motivated by leadership races, rather by a desire to advance GOP priorities and better position the party for the midterms.

“From the time he got to Congress, Whip Scalise has always been fighting for conservative causes, whether it was as chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, or in his current role in leadership,” Scalise’s spokeswoman said in a statement. “He will continue to use his position to bring a conservative voice to the table and ensure we are advancing President Trump’s agenda.”

But the two leaders have also been making moves that could make them more appealing Speaker candidates, especially to their more-conservative colleagues.

Winning the gavel will require the support of the Freedom Caucus, a band of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners who have the power to influence the outcome of the race for Speaker. And they may seek to use that leverage in the next leadership elections.

Even before Ryan announced his retirement, McCarthy was taking steps aimed at improving his relationship with the Freedom Caucus, spending more time with members in the back of the House chamber during votes, some lawmakers noted.

But on Monday, it was Scalise who became the first member of leadership to adamantly defend Jordan, who has been battling allegations that he did not protect wrestlers from sexual abuse by a team doctor when he was an assistant coach at Ohio State University several decades ago.

“I have always known Jim Jordan to be honest, and I’m confident he would stand up for his athletes, just like he’s always stood up for what’s right,” Scalise said in a statement Monday afternoon. “I'm glad that Jim is committed to working with the investigators to see that the full truth comes out and justice is served.”

McCarthy followed up with a similarly supportive statement that evening, telling the Associated Press that Jordan is “a good and honest man” and he believes Jordan “absolutely would have acted” if faced with evidence of abuse.

The remarks were far stronger than Ryan’s initial statement from the previous week, when he called the allegations “serious” and said the independent investigation should be allowed to play out.

Another key conservative voting bloc in the House is the roughly 160-member Republican Study Committee, the largest caucus on Capitol Hill. The RSC has long been pushing leadership to take bolder and tougher votes.

This past week, Scalise proposed a floor vote on an “abolish ICE” bill. He made the pitch during the deputy whip team meeting and RSC steering committee meeting, where members were overwhelmingly receptive to the strategy, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.

They were thrilled with the idea of forcing a tough vote on Democrats, who are divided over whether to abolish the agency that has come under scrutiny by progressives amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that led to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

RSC Chairman Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerStudent voter suppression is an affront to the memory of Andrew Goodman House GOP starts summer break on a note of friction Key conservative: Republicans should focus on Sessions, not Rosenstein MORE (R-N.C.), who acknowledged the floor-vote strategy came up in a meeting with a member of leadership Thursday, said he felt it was a smart move for the party.

"I think it's the right vote,” Walker told The Hill. “They want to abolish ICE? Then put your money where your mouth is."

McCarthy pushed ahead with the plan, announcing Thursday that he intended to schedule a vote on the measure this month. The majority leader, sensing that the growing calls to abolish ICE could backfire on Democrats, first flagged the issue during a GOP conference meeting about two weeks ago, according to a Republican aide.

There has even been some chatter about forcing Democrats to vote on a whole slew of far-left issues dividing their caucus, such as Medicare for all.

“There are lots of things Democrats would like to do, so let’s put them on the floor and let them vote on them,” Rep. Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresGOP leaders jockey for affection of House conservatives Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus House GOP leaders push immigration vote to next week MORE (R-Texas), a former RSC chairman, told The Hill. “There’s going to be several of them. You’ll have some excitement in the next two weeks.”

Both Scalise and McCarthy can boast significant fundraising numbers, which could help make their case for Speaker as they bolster efforts to keep Republicans in control of the House.

Scalise raised $2.5 million during the second quarter, and he’s brought in $10 million so far this cycle. The Louisiana Republican hosted 74 events — between his PAC, appearing with members on the road and on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) — according to a campaign email Friday.

But he still trails McCarthy. Between his four fundraising committees, McCarthy raised more than $12 million during the second quarter, bringing his running total to $41 million this cycle, his team announced this past week.

The rivalry between the press savvy operations for both McCarthy and Scalise has led to media coverage on the Speaker topic. The Atlantic magazine recently published a lengthy profile about Scalise titled, “The Man Who Would Be Speaker.”

And last week, a McCarthy profile appeared in Politico quoting several of the majority leader’s allies. Its headline: “McCarthy launches stealth campaign for speaker.”

“The Atlantic piece on Scalise probably pissed off McCarthy, and the Politico piece on McCarthy probably bugged Scalise,” said a senior GOP aide who’s been closely watching the two leaders jockey for position.

— Scott Wong contributed to this report, which was updated at 1:30 p.m.