Republican leaders in the U.S. House, seeking a swift pivot from the surprising election defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, are pressing for a quick vote of party unity in the anointment of his successor.
In the aftermath of the June 10 primary election in which a Tea Party-backed candidate unseated one of the House’s most influential players in Cantor, leaders are intent on averting a divisive feud that projects chaos to voters heading into the midterm election in November.
Republicans are poised to maintain control of the House and challenge Democrats for the U.S. Senate majority. Already some in the party are worried that a messy succession fight, especially one that pits House leaders against the Tea Party, would dent the party’s strength.
“That’s the danger,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said yesterday at the Capitol. Several television commentators after the election results were announced said “that this was a rejection of compromise, it was a rejection of any type of moderation,” he said. “I didn’t want the party to be hijacked.”
The speed with which House Republicans yesterday scheduled a vote for their new No. 2 leader -- on June 19 -- may avert a fight and boost Representative Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who serves in the No. 3 role as House whip and is moving to consolidate support.
Cantor, ready to step aside from his leadership post on July 31 following the primary loss in Virginia, endorsed McCarthy to succeed him.
Yet challengers are emerging, with one promising to make protection of the nation’s borders the hallmark of his campaign for majority leader, a sign that there will be no coronation.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, in a closed-door meeting with fellow Republicans, called on them to make this a moment of unity, according to a participant in the meeting.
“No one expected this to happen,” Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said yesterday of Cantor’s defeat the day before, “and we’ve got to put the train back on the track as fast as we can.”
Cantor’s historic defeat -- no House majority leader had lost renomination since the post was created in 1899 -- spurred an instant struggle for power at the highest levels of the Republican-run House.
Cantor, who said he’ll serve the remainder of his term in Congress through the year’s end, lost to a college economics professor, David Brat, by more than 10 percentage points.
“All politics are local,” Cantor told reporters. “I just came up short and the voters elected another candidate.”
In endorsing McCarthy, Cantor said he’s seeking harmony among House Republicans. “This town should be about trying to strike common ground,” Cantor said at his news conference.
Though the contest may have some friction, it will be quick.
“I think that the speaker is moving very quickly and that the three or four names that are out there are good, solid people with leadership experience and conservative principles,” said Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican. “So I think that we’ll move fast, and it’s not going to be real protracted.”
Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee, plans to run for majority leader on a platform of increasing border security. Brat had challenged Cantor for promoting the passage of new laws that could favor undocumented immigrants.
“I’ve led our team before,” said Sessions, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee for House election campaigns in 2010 and 2012. “I’ve led our team to victory.”
Other names also are being advanced. Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Financial Services Committee chairman, would be a “dream candidate” for Cantor’s post, said Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, chairwoman of the House Republican conference and the top Republican woman in House leadership, said in a statement that she will remain in her current position.
In their private meeting yesterday, House Republicans agreed on the immediate date for their sudden leadership election. Boehner left that meeting without commenting to reporters, allowing Cantor to stand on his own before a blue banner bearing the printed message: “An America That Works.”
Boehner, inside the caucus meeting, said Cantor had been with him from the start and there was no one who worked harder, according to a participant in the meeting. Boehner quoted Winston Churchill as saying success is not final, failure not fatal -- it’s courage that counts.
Boehner urged his caucus to view this as a time for unity, focusing on what they consider the failures of President Barack Obama’s policies and presenting a viable alternative to the American public.
Cantor had been considered the front-runner to become the next speaker of the House, succeeding Boehner.
The speaker made no push for Cantor to step aside, according to a Republican lawmaker close to Boehner. This lawmaker also called McCarthy the clear favorite to succeed the majority leader. As for Boehner’s own position, Representative Steve Stivers, a fellow Ohio Republican, said: “It’s more important than ever that he stay around for continuity.”
Representatives Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican who serves as the House’s chief deputy whip, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana will run for whip, according to Republican aides familiar with their plans.
Republicans from Southern states have complained for some time that they don’t have anyone in leadership from a state that voted for a Republican running against Obama. Now, some sense a moment to make that happen.
“If you look at the geographic locations of our leadership, there’ll be one particular area that’s short that represents about 45 percent of the conference, so you make your own determination,” said Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland.
The current party leadership comes from states that backed Obama’s election twice: Boehner from Ohio, Cantor of Virginia, McCarthy of California, and McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
Brat, with a doctorate in economics and master’s degree in divinity teaching at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond, challenged Cantor as sympathetic to enacting immigration laws that Obama and fellow Democrats are seeking.
Revamping the nation’s immigration laws is among issues that will be stalled by the impending House leadership struggle and the ways in which Republicans will interpret Cantor’s loss, King of New York said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“A lot of things are going to be dead,” King said. “Thank God there’s no debt-ceiling vote coming up.”
In his election campaign, Brat made compromise over raising the nation’s debt limit one of his complaints about Cantor’s leadership in Washington.
The last vote to raise the debt ceiling was cast in February. Another vote isn’t expected until the middle of 2015.
Cantor’s willingness to negotiate was one of his strengths, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS:US) President Gary Cohn. “For financial markets and for Main Street and Wall Street, that’s an issue that we’re dealing with today more than we were dealing with yesterday at this time,” Cohn said in an interview on Bloomberg Television yesterday.
The Virginia upset followed a lopsided contest: Cantor reported raising $5.4 million for his campaign through May 21 while Brat raised $207,000, in the latest data available at the Federal Election Commission.
Cantor, who met with a group of current and former aides at the Capitol yesterday, told friends to avoid long faces or tears, according to a participant in the talk.
The outgoing majority leader told his trusted aides that his top goal now is finding them good jobs elsewhere. As one door closes, the participant heard him say, another opens.
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