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Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.

Conservatives gain voice in House leadership

Politics | Establishment Republicans keep control, but conservatives get a foot in the door

WASHINGTON—House Republicans elected a new majority leader and whip Tuesday afternoon, completing a leadership shakeup that began nine days ago when Majority Leader Eric Canter lost his primary

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., ascended from majority whip to majority leader with a first-ballot victory over conservative challenger Rep Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., also registered a first-ballot victory in a mild upset, defeating Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., in a three-way race to replace McCarthy as the party’s No. 3. 

“I’ll make one promise,” McCarthy said after the election. “I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen, and we’ll turn this country around.” 

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McCarthy and Scalise will assume their new roles on July 31, when Cantor has said he will step down. 

Although Thursday’s vote included candidates unknown to most of the country, the results could have far-reaching implications. The majority House leadership, among other things, assigns committee membership, sets policy priorities, and determines what bills will come to the floor for votes—important decisions for a Congress that continues to set new lows in approval ratings. 

Virginia voters ousted Cantor last week in favor of a more conservative challenger, David Brat, but McCarthy, his leadership replacement, may actually be less conservative than Cantor. Labrador, a tea party favorite, entered the race late and said he did so to provide a true conservative alternative. “We regained control of the House in 2010 because Americans believed that Washington was not listening,” Labrador said Wednesday at a candidate forum. “If you vote for the status quo tomorrow, you will prove that we are still not listening.”

Members cast votes via secret ballot, and since Labrador asked for the vote to be recorded as unanimous, it is unclear how many Republicans may have cast protest votes. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, one of the most conservative members of Congress, said McCarthy “has said it will not be business as usual, so now we will see if the coming evidence supports such a verdict.” 

Gohmert this week announced he will run to replace Scalise as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the party’s 176-member conservative caucus. Scalise cited his RSC work as a cornerstone of his campaign for whip, saying he’s proven it’s possible to both pass conservative legislation and bridge divides in the party. 

Apparently it worked: Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., told me after the vote that he voted for Scalise because of his RSC experience, saying the party needs to focus on the issues that can bring the GOP together. “I don’t want to criticize anybody, but I think we need to be more aggressive in moving our agenda forward,” he said. “We need 218 to pass a bill and we really need to be unified together.”

The man Scalise defeated, Peter Roskam, took a different approach to his campaign: He reportedly told members he would bring unruly conservatives into line—by punishing them. Roskam floated ideas such as refusing to take up members’ bills and relegating rebels to unimportant committee assignments if they refused to fall into line, a tactic House Speaker John Boehner used after the 2012 election

Scalise’s election means House leadership tips more conservative and gains a member from the South—an attribute some lawmakers said was important. 

Some conservative members said they view the next few months as a trial run for the next Congress, but Republicans likely will vote to keep the same leadership in place for the 114th Congress. 

“They’ll be reelected without any problem,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., told me, saying the positions likely won’t be contested again until at least 2016. “It was settled for now.” 

J.C. Derrick
J.C. Derrick

J.C. is a reporter in WORLD's Washington Bureau. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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