Capitol Hill: The Whip Fight and a Hensarling Challenge to Boehner

Published on June 18, 2014

The election of a party’s Whip would not ordinarily command much attention, but in the wake of Eric Cantor’s shock defeat in a Virginia primary last week, tomorrow’s House Republican election of its new Majority Whip is different.  The three-way Whip contest marks the first of a two-front challenge by a resurgent Tea Party wing to pull Speaker John Boehner’s fractured House Republican conference even further to the right.

*** First, House Republicans may elect a whip in the special leadership elections tomorrow that elevates a Tea Party favorite into the House GOP leadership for the first time.  For most Republicans, the whip election is less about ideology or policy as it is simply who will be more effective in delivering votes. That would seem to favor Illinois moderate and deputy whip Peter Roskam. But for now, the clear front runner is Louisiana conservative Steve Scalise, especially if the third candidate, Idaho’s Marlin Stutzman polls badly or even drops out later today. ***

*** Second, the battle inside the House GOP may grow even more dramatically after the November elections into a direct challenge to Boehner: Jeb Hensarling, the Texas conservative and current Chairman of the Financial Services Committee is understood to be weighing a run against Boehner as the GOP’s nominee for Speaker in the next congressional session in January. ***

*** If Scalise wins, the inevitable takeaway will be yet more trouble at the table in Boehner’s House. It could push GOP Senate candidates further to the right, which establishment Republicans fear could alienate enough independent voters to cost the GOP Senate seats in November. And even if Scalise loses and Hensarling does as well or backs down from challenging Boehner, while we still think it is a lower probability, it will invariably further hobble the House GOP leadership in the next congressional session, especially with another vote to pass a debt ceiling increase looming next spring. ***

Whip’s office Scalise’s to Lose

The special leadership election tomorrow is primarily to select a new Majority Leader, since Cantor decided to step down on July 31 rather than continue to serve in the position until the regularly scheduled leadership elections in December. The current Majority Whip, California Rep Kevin McCarthy is strongly favored to easily win the election as the new Majority Leader against late entrant Raul Labrador of Idaho, a Tea Party conservative.

So it is McCarthy’s elevation to Majority Leader that opens the door to the contest for the Majority Whip position that is shaping up into an intense rivalry between Scalise, a Tea Party conservative and current chairman of the 137 member arch-conservative Republican Study Group, and Illinois moderate Peter Roskam, who is favored by the GOP House mainstream and is currently a deputy Whip.

Indiana Rep Marlin Stutzman, a third candidate even further to the right of Scalise with only a handful of likely votes, is also running, and is fated to come in a poor third. He is under pressure to drop out later today to prevent a Roskam victory in a split conservative vote.

Scalise is vowing he already has 110 of the 117 votes needed to win on a first ballot, and he has picked up a handful of high profile supporters outside the party’s conservative southern base, including Boehner allies like Tom Cole of Oklahoma and the Conference chairperson Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Oregon.

Scalise is building much of his campaign around the need for a southern conservative from a red state to be in the leadership — currently the entire House GOP are from blue or purple states — something the Tea Party has been pushing for ever since the freshman class of 2010 helped sweep the GOP back into the majority in the House.

Roskam, on the other hand, has carefully pitched his case arguing that he has the deep experience as a deputy whip to simply do a better job as whip, and which after all, is about nailing down the votes rather than steering the votes. At the end of the day, Congressmen are more keen to stay in the Majority and to retain all the privileges it brings in Committee chairmanships and control of the House floor for favored bills.

He is said to have garnered as many as 95 votes and his strategy is built around denying Scalise a first ballot win and then snatching a victory on a second ballot by scooping up the handful of Stutzman supporters who though conservative, dislike Scalise’s tightly controlled leadership of the RSG.

We understand, however, that Stutzman is under increasing pressure to step out of the race later today, to clear the way for conservatives to rally round Scalise to put a Tea Party voice within the leadership. Scalise supporters are arguing if he stays in the race, a “moderate Midwesterner” will beat a Southern conservative, and retell the story of how Boehner prevailed over the much more conservative Roy Blunt of Missouri for the House Majority Leader race a decade ago by winning on the second ballot .

For now, it does seem the election is Scalise’s to lose, but there is no question the race is tightening, and more importantly, the vote is by secret ballot, so no one can really know just how firm the yes votes each candidate has whipped.  It beckons to recall an old Teddy Kennedy quip when he ran for and lost a race for Senate Majority Whip to West Virginia’s veteran war-horse Robert Byrd in 1971: “Today I learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a caucus, the pricks are on the inside.”

Hensarling and the Challenge to Boehner

A Scalise victory would mark a sharp swing to the right in an already conservative House in the wake of Eric Cantor’s unexpected defeat last week.

In doing so, it may also deepen the frictions within the leadership and further complicate Boehner’s already weakened command over the badly fractured House Republicans. Much, however, will obviously depend on who controls the Senate in 2015, and more to the point, whether Scalise adapts to the leadership demands of a Whip, or brings the Tea Party ideological crusade into the leadership.

There is some debate within the Republican ranks that bringing a Tea Party advocate into the leadership will lead to Scalise moderating some of his ideological fervor over the next six months of having to whip the votes necessary to pass the essential remaining legislation this congressional session, such as the FY2015 spending bills due before October 1. The House is more than likely to kick the bills into next year and the new Congress by passing one or more Continuing Resolutions, but still, the ideological firebrand may find there is little room for waging ideological war amid the more mundane task of pushing legislation along.

That fear of losing the Tea Party “purity,” essentially by being co-opted by the mainstream leadership under Boehner is understood to be the main reason Hensarling opted against running for the Majority Leader position last week.

Hensarling has worked well with Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership in the last few years, much of why he is now chairman of Financial Services. But well-placed sources tell us he has his eyes set on the prize of the Speakership by defeating Boehner instead, and in effect, if Scalise takes the Whip’s position, lead a Republican House ouster of the blue state leadership and pull the House Republicans more clearly to the right.

One nagging question is whether Hensarling’s consideration of a run against Boehner, once it inevitably leaks out further, is simply a trial balloon to gauge the extent of the House Republican dissatisfaction with Boehner.

The other is how exactly and when he could make his move. The December election of the party’s leadership for the 114th Congress is the obvious venue, though there is some prospect of a procedural vote in January when the party conference meets on the eve of the actual vote by the full House for Speaker on its opening day in January.

But Hensarling’s calculation seems to be a win-win of sorts in that — aside from running and being beaten badly — he either wins outright and is the next Speaker, since the Republicans are all but certain to keep control of the House, or he loses but is elevated to the status of Boehner’s heir-apparent, since the Majority Leader McCarthy, normally the next in line to make a go at Speaker, is showing no inclination of wanting the job.

In any case, whether Hensarling makes a go at Boehner and wins or loses, and indeed whether Scalise wins tomorrow to become the Majority Whip by beating back the run from the rear by Roskam on a second ballot, the intense splits within the Republican ranks are hardly abating as much as the GOP leadership and the larger mainstream of the party had hoped before Cantor’s defeat last week. And that, at least to some degree, is likely to spill over into the GOP prospects to retake the Senate in November.

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