It Begins: House GOP Battle Over Leadership

The House Republicans are loath to discuss the new leadership positions for fear that the public will be offended by their confidence and not vote on Tuesday in the midterm elections.

But behind closed doors, the leaders are anticipating taking control of the House on Wednesday morning and moving fast to implement their legislative pledge.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R–Ohio) led the Republicans back into power and will be unchallenged in his bid for Speaker of the House.

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R–Va.) will move up a slot to Majority Leader.

The Majority Whip position is in play, and the leading contenders are Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) and National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (R–Tex.).

McCarthy has several advantages: experience in the Whip operation, smooth spokesman skills, and strong relationships with incoming freshmen. As Chief Deputy Whip, McCarthy got an office in Cantor’s Capitol suite and was hands-on whipping votes. He was groomed by his predecessor, Rep. Bill Thomas, to be a public face for the GOP. His good looks and TV skills made McCarthy a good spokesman for the party and one of the top “Young Guns.”

Boehner tested McCarthy’s leadership skills by putting him in charge of building consensus and drafting the Republicans’ “Pledge to America.” His weakness is inexperience, in that he has served only one term in Congress.

NRCC Chair Sessions gets much of the credit for directing the anti-Obama sentiments in the country toward fundraising and taking back the House. The conservative Sessions and his powerhouse team at the NRCC raised record levels of money and organized the unruly Tea Party candidates.

Sessions is appreciated for his hard work winning back the House, but he is likely looking at the numbers and seeing he can’t beat McCarthy in a Whip race.

McCarthy was Sessions’s deputy at the NRCC, serving as Head of Recruitment. This role is McCarthy’s greatest political strength because over the past tumultuous year, he was the first call for Republican candidates when they needed help with fundraising or communications.

“If you have 50 or more new freshmen coming in, Kevin [McCarthy] has recruited 90% of them. So take his personal relationships with the freshman class, combine that with the fact that he’s pretty strong right now in the current Congress,” said a GOP aide. “It would be very difficult for someone to beat him.”

The Republicans, however, want to avoid an internal leadership race right in order to demonstrate their party unity after the big election. So, Boehner is expected to step in and find a way to appease both McCarthy and Sessions to avoid a leadership fight.

“Boehner likes to keep people happy and keep people from fighting,” said a leadership aide. “He prevents conflicts from creating themselves.”  

In the end, most expect that Boehner will throw his support behind McCarthy for the Majority Whip job and ask Sessions to be a good soldier and stay on as NRCC Chair.

But, Sessions is not thrilled with staying at his current post. “Being the NRCC chairman in a wave election is not something that happens often,” said a GOP aide. “You retire on a Super Bowl championship.” Nevertheless, Sessions doesn’t seem to have another viable option that wouldn’t be seen as a step down.

Aides have thrown out the option of Sessions taking over the powerful Rules Committee, but ranking chair David Dreier (R–Calif.) is not moving. Dreier will resume the chairman position, which he held from 1999 to 2006.

The fourth-ranking leader, Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R–Ind.), is most likely resigning his position to focus on running for governor, or even President. “He’s got bigger pie in the sky than conference chair,” said one leadership aide.

When word leaked that Pence is likely to step down, the leadership started looking at Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R–Tex) to replace him. Hensarling is smart and experienced in communications, which is the focus of the conference. He ran Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign and owned a communications firm in Texas. He has demonstrated leadership in fundraising, having given $1.6 million to the NRCC and over $500,000 to individual Republican candidates this cycle.

Hensarling’s weakness is that he has been a thorn in leadership’s side by pushing for a conservative agenda, especially in regard to ending earmarks. But all concede that he has done a lot to mend fences with Boehner in the past two years.

And, what the leadership sees as Hensarling’s weakness—his pushing for conservative agenda items—will likely be his strength with the freshman class. “Ideologically, he’s closer to where a lot of the new members—the Tea Partiers—are going to be in the new Congress,” said a leadership aide.

For conference chair, Hensarling is out in front of the pack, but others who have expressed interest in the position are Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price (R–Ga.), House Republican Conference Vice-Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R–Wash.), and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.)

Boehner has worked for years to take control of the House, and he is not going to let petty in-fighting affect his ability to implement the pledge items in the new congress. “We all need to focus on what we agree on,” said an aide. “And I think Boehner’s going to try really hard to do that.”