Washington — In a move that could hurt the chances of U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise to rise to majority leader, voting by Republicans to fill that post and other leadership positions has been pushed back several weeks, until late October at the earliest.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called off Monday the voting that had been scheduled for Thursday to nominate his successor and potentially to choose a new majority leader and majority whip. Instead, Republicans will meet Thursday to endorse their candidate for speaker, a constitutional position elected by a public vote of the full House. That full House vote will take place Oct. 29, and the winner will set the date of the other leadership elections.
Incumbent Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, is considered the favorite to win the endorsement of his fellow Republicans for speaker, and the majority party typically controls the speakership. But Republicans are struggling with divisions among them that have already led to Boehner’s surprise Sept. 25 announcement that he will step down at the end of October, and two other Republican House members are challenging McCarthy. Should McCarthy fail to be elected speaker, he may stay as majority leader, forestalling Scalise’s attempt to move up from his current No. 3 position in the leadership hierarchy to the No. 2 slot of majority leader.
The delay allows more time for opposition to McCarthy to coalesce, and also, potentially, for new challengers to Scalise to emerge. So far, only Scalise and Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, of Georgia, have declared for majority leader. Scalise told supporters Sunday that he has the votes to win the job.
The whip is responsible for tracking and corralling Republican votes on the House floor for the leadership agenda. The majority leader plays a greater role in formulating policy with the speaker and is assigned the critical task of scheduling the flow of legislation. Scalise, who was first elected to Congress in 2008, was selected whip in 2014 in another Republican shake-up.
If chosen majority leader, Scalise, R-Jefferson, would be the highest-ranking member of Congress from Louisiana since New Orleans Democrat Hale Boggs served as House majority leader in 1971-72, before disappearing on a flight in Alaska.
Some House Republicans are pressing for a change in party rules, to require candidates for higher positions to resign their current positions. Voting by House Republicans on that proposal could occur this week.
The dynamic for elections for speaker is considerably different than that for majority leader, whip and other internal leadership positions.
To win as majority leader, for example, Scalise needs to capture the support of a majority of the 247 Republicans in the House. In a conference call with supporters Sunday, he claimed to have lined up more than the 124 votes needed.
But to get elected speaker, a candidate must carry a majority of the 435-seat House. Republicans now hold one of their largest margins ever, 247-188 over the Democrats. But the Democrats likely will vote for their own leader, Nancy Pelosi, of California, meaning a defection of 30 Republicans from their party’s anointed candidate would deny him or her the majority needed to win — or keep — the job.
It was the prospect of just that sort of defection that played a major role in Boehner’s decision to resign. The locus of that disaffection is the hard-right wing of the Republican Party, centered on the Freedom Caucus, a deep-red conclave of about 40 members founded early this year by Rep. John Fleming, of Minden, and other fervent conservatives.
Fleming and his ilk are dissatisfied with Boehner’s tactics on controversial issues such as defunding Planned Parenthood, the Iran nuclear deal and Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive orders on undocumented immigrants. Despite majorities in both the House and Senate, the Republicans are not strong enough to steamroll Senate Democrats, under the Senate’s rules, nor to override presidential vetoes.
Boehner prefers to avoid going to the mat with Democrats and risking a government shutdown, like the 16-day stoppage in 2013 that accomplished little and that moderate Republicans say hurt the party’s brand. But Fleming and his allies want to push the Democrats to the limit — and they say their constituents demand it.
Fleming has said that for existing members of leadership to simply get a promotion — a circumstance that would describe the advances that McCarthy and Scalise hope for — is unacceptable, although he endorsed Scalise’s candidacy Monday. True-red conservatives have been casting about for a standard-bearer to run for either speaker or majority leader, so far without success. Ironically, Boehner may have tried to help them, although for his own reasons: He met last week with Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina, the chairman of the select committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack, who is popular with conservatives, and reportedly recruited him as a majority-leader candidate to protect McCarthy’s right wing should McCarthy become speaker. Gowdy declined, disavowing any interest in a leadership position.
In the 2014 election for whip, Scalise defeated two other contenders as a proven conservative from a red state, promising to bring that perspective to a leadership team that otherwise includes blue-state Republicans.
But as a loyal member of leadership, he has more than once voted Boehner’s way in opposition to the conservative confrontationalists, allying with Democrats to pass legislation opposed by a majority of Republicans, including every other House Republican from Louisiana. Such was the case Wednesday, when the House passed a stopgap federal-government financing measure that did not defund Planned Parenthood, as conservatives devoutly wished.
That may taint Scalise in conservatives’ eyes.
Counting in Scalise’s favor are the extensive connections he has developed as whip, a job that calls for regular contact with members throughout the Republican ranks, checking on where they stand and listening to their concerns. He has performed very effectively as a fundraiser for his colleagues, a key element of leadership assignments.
And even though he has taken some heat over the Republicans’ disarray on shutdown legislation, he also has received credit for successes, such as the approval of a budget plan for the federal government and a bill that permanently changes the way doctors are reimbursed by Medicare.
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