House conservatives warm to McCarthy as Speaker

Greg Nash

With Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) job in doubt, House conservatives have been holding internal talks about a new leadership coalition that could include Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker and more conservative members occupying lower rungs on the leadership ladder.

The discussions among members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are preliminary and informal, multiple GOP lawmakers tell The Hill.

Still, the intensifying chatter suggests a vote to oust Boehner could happen as early as this fall. It also shows that if the Speaker survives until after the 2016 elections, conservatives are actively discussing what kind of leadership team could emerge in a post-Boehner Congress.

{mosads}One Freedom Caucus member involved in the discussions personally informed McCarthy over the summer recess that the majority leader could have his support for the top job in the event Boehner resigns or is forced out this fall.

But there is no evidence that McCarthy, Boehner’s current deputy, has been involved in any discussions to remove the Speaker.

“I don’t think [McCarthy’s] plotting. I don’t think he’s trying to aid and abet,” said the conservative lawmaker. “I just think he is trying to figure out where everyone is. I volunteered to him that, under the right circumstances, I could vote for him for Speaker.”

Aides to Boehner and McCarthy initially declined to comment for this story. But Boehner last week brushed off concerns that he doesn’t have control of his 246-member conference, insisting to reporters he has “widespread support amongst my members.”  

After this story was published Tuesday, Boehner spokeswoman Emily Schillinger made clear the Speaker “is not going anywhere.”

“Navigating tough challenges isn’t new to this leadership team,” she said in an email. “The Speaker is focused on the American people’s priorities and how we can accomplish them.”

Tea Party rebels in the GOP conference have had a target on Boehner’s back ever since he won the Speaker’s gavel after the 2010 election, and a number of conservatives have threatened to depose the Ohio Republican if he doesn’t stand firm and defund Planned Parenthood in this month’s spending showdown.

GOP leaders face an Oct. 1 deadline to approve a bill to keep the government open. Because a funding bill that blocked money for Planned Parenthood could not pass the Senate, they have no clear path forward for doing so without working with Democrats — something that could spur a conservative move against Boehner.

“They call it the people’s house, and there is some chaos every once in awhile,” said the conservative lawmaker. “In this setting, it is inevitable that chaos is going to ensue.”

Talk of a possible coup against Boehner has consumed the Capitol ever since Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) rolled out a measure this summer to oust the Speaker from power. Any lawmaker now has the ability to take up the Meadows plan and make a privileged motion to “vacate the chair,” forcing a roll-call vote on whether to remove Boehner.

In an interview in his Capitol office last week, Meadows raised the idea of a new governing coalition, stating he didn’t believe the next Speaker would come from the ranks of the far-right Freedom Caucus that he co-founded this year.

Meadows also mentioned he had called McCarthy last month while driving through his central California district on the way to speaking engagements but noted that they didn’t discuss his Boehner resolution.

“It potentially could be a coalition of someone from current leadership with a more conservative member as part of leadership,” Meadows told The Hill, “because our districts are not all Freedom Caucus districts.”

Under that scenario, Meadows said, “Everybody has a stake in it.”

Freedom Caucus sources said any deliberations about a possible leadership coalition have been initiated by individual members and taken place privately, rather than during weekly, formal conference meetings.

The fact that conservatives see McCarthy as a potential successor to Boehner might be surprising to some.

Conservatives see the genial former deli owner who hails from the bluest of states as one of the only members who has the stature and organization to secure 218 GOP votes — the magic number needed to be elected Speaker on the House floor.

Two other names floated are Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

But it’s far from clear that Ryan is interested in being Speaker, and Scalise came under fire this year for speaking to a white supremacist group back in 2002.

Sources said more conservative contenders, such as Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) or Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), probably would not have broad support to lock up 218 votes.

Some Republicans see the idea of a leadership coalition as pure fantasy. But the Freedom Caucus does have enormous leverage: Between 40 to 50 members strong, the conservative bloc of House members essentially could veto any nominee for Speaker simply by withholding all of their votes.

That could force McCarthy and other establishment Republicans to the negotiating table.

A number of Republicans cautioned that McCarthy, a former majority whip, certainly doesn’t have the Speaker’s race sewn up. In fact, one Boehner critic, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), said installing McCarthy in the top post amounted to “a swap with no benefits.”

But McCarthy has been shoring up his right flank this past year ahead of any future run for Speaker. His regular outreach to rank-and-file members has included phone calls, text messages and dinner invitations to members of the Freedom Caucus — a group Boehner views as a nuisance.

And McCarthy has appeared to break with Boehner on some policy issues. 

This spring, the No. 2 GOP leader said he wanted to outright kill the Export-Import Bank, while Boehner warned that such a move could cost thousands of U.S. jobs. And when undercover Planned Parenthood videos surfaced this summer, McCarthy called for an immediate “moratorium” on federal funding for the nonprofit group; meanwhile, Boehner said he wanted to see “facts first” from House investigations before pledging to defund the group.

Other conservatives have been gaming out the possibilities in great detail. Another anonymous House lawmaker said one such coalition could look something like this: McCarthy as Speaker; Jordan as majority leader; National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) lands a committee gavel just like his predecessor, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas); and another conservative nabs the NRCC post.

“Often the way government is done is through coalitions,” said the lawmaker. “You go, ‘Look, we’ll get behind you but you’ve got to be willing to take one of us with you.’ ”

“You can backfill the open positions on the leadership team, who can influence the Speaker.”

Tags Budget John Boehner Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Planned Parenthood Shutdown
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