Kevin McCarthy to House conservatives: 'I'm not John Boehner'

Kevin McCarthy clarifies Benghazi comments
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Story highlights

  • Kevin McCarthy, Jason Chaffetz and Daniel Webster met House conservatives Tuesday night
  • Kansas GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp, one of the organizers of Tuesday's meeting, told CNN that he believes more candidates will enter the race for speaker
  • McCarthy has an uphill battle with the House Freedom Caucus, given that as Boehner's No. 2, he represents what they say they don't want -- more of the same

Washington (CNN)House conservatives met Tuesday night with the candidates for House Speaker, as the group of conservative lawmakers wrestle with the prospect of backing Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy or an insurgent candidate.

About 50-60 Republicans from the freedom caucus, the tea party caucus, liberty caucus and the conservative opportunity group interviewed the three Speaker candidates.
It was an especially critical moment for McCarthy, the Californian who is viewed warily by conservatives skeptical of his ties to outgoing Speaker John Boehner and are upset about his recent gaffe in which the suggested the House's Benghazi investigation was an attempt to damage Hillary Clinton's political prospects.
    Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, summed up McCarthy's pitch, saying the Majority Leader told conservatives: "I'm not John Boehner. I'm going to run things differently. I'm my own man."
    Several conservatives came out of the meeting saying they believe that the party should get behind whichever candidate the party nominates for speaker. That would be good news for McCarthy, whose allies say he has enough votes to win the nomination when the full GOP conference meets Thursday.
    "Of course," said Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Florida, when asked if he would back on the floor whichever candidate wins the conference vote Thursday. "We are all Republicans first. I am a member of the Freedom Caucus. I was in business my whole career. The opponents are the other team -- not ourselves." He later said he wanted to vote with the Freedom Caucus.
    Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, another Freedom Caucus member, said he backs McCarthy because he was "instrumental in bringing the majority here."
    "I think the party will come together and I think he will be very successful," Buck said.
    Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wisconsin, said, "Absolutely because if you're not going to support the candidate who comes out of the conference, you might as well be in the minority. You gotta at some point move together as a cohesive unit as a Republicans."

    McCarthy downplays meeting

    As he left the Capitol for the nearby Capitol Hill Club, McCarthy downplayed the significance of his appearance before the influential right flank of his conference.
    "This is like all the other groups," McCarthy told CNN. "This is an opportunity to have a dialogue, answer questions, talk about how we set up a new vision, process and that every voice is going to be able to be heard."
    For the most part, House Republicans on the right have kept their powder dry, not yet endorsing anyone in the contest to replace Boehner. Multiple uncommitted Freedom Caucus members tell CNN they want more detail on how the next Speaker will change the way the House operates and commit to a more inclusive process for conservatives to help craft the party's agenda.
    "Everybody runs because ... they want to change this country," he said. "They want to have a voice, they want their voice to be heard, they want to be legislators, and I want to make sure they have the opportunity to do that. (How we do that is) part of the discussion tonight. We'll come together as a full conference to lay out those plans because that's how it all gets put together."
    "He made a compelling case," said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said of McCarthy. Meadows, who introduced the resolution to boot Boehner from the speakership, also sounded skeptical that the House Freedom Caucus would be able to unite as a bloc.

    More candidates to enter the race?

    Kansas GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp, one of the organizers of Tuesday's meeting, told CNN that he believes more candidates will enter the race for speaker, and if that happens, conservatives may want to hold another session to interview them.
    Already in the race with McCarthy are Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida.
    More candidates would also further scramble the race, as McCarthy -- the current favorite -- tries to fend off efforts to keep him below the 218 votes needed to win the job in a full vote of the House of Representatives October 29.
    Whomever wins Thursday's secret ballot vote to determine its official nominee is not guaranteed to be the next Speaker. As Boehner learned in January when 25 House Republicans split and backed other candidates, not all House GOP members feel bound to vote for their formal party nominee in a public roll call vote on the floor.
    "There are other folks looking at it that haven't made it public," Huelskamp said, adding that he believes McCarthy doesn't have enough votes to win the post on the floor, and he's not sure whether all three Republicans running for the post combined could assemble 218 votes.
    Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Benghazi committee who some have suggested be drafted into the race, said the conference should get behind the winner at Thursday's meeting. "That's our winner," he said. "This is our primary on Thursday ... Whoever comes out as the conference choice."
    Asked who he would back, Gowdy joked, "whoever I'm maddest at," adding that Speaker's position‎ is "a really tough job."
    Gowdy also reiterated he won't run for any leadership post.

    Boehner, part 2?

    The Freedom Caucus lawmakers will hold a separate meeting late Tuesday after they interview McCarthy, Chaffetz and Webster to decide if they will make an endorsement. Under the group's own rules, it would take 80% of its membership to approve an endorsement in the race, but even if it doesn't back a candidate, the group can potentially block McCarthy -- or anyone else -- from reaching the magic number.
    Its members have already indicated McCarthy has an uphill battle with them, given that as Boehner's No. 2, he represents what they say they don't want -- more of the same.
    "A mere reshuffling of current leadership won't work. That a promotion of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to speaker is being seriously discussed by leadership allies demonstrates how little they have learned from recent events," Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, wrote Sunday in a CNN op-ed.
    Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, a Webster backer, insisted that it is "demonstrably shown" McCarthy can't get to 218 votes. "Probably more on the floor would vote against him than in conference," Massie said. "This is Boehner vote Part 2."
    Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative from North Carolina who also backs Webster, said Republicans should focus on the Oct. 29 vote - not the conference vote. And Iowa Rep. Steve King said he thinks it will be "very difficult" for the House Freedom Caucus to vote as a bloc given the array of views expressed in the room.
    "We all shared our feelings," Jones said of the mood in the meeting.
    Jones added that there were six or seven questions directed towards McCarthy, including one where he raised a pointed question towards McCarthy over a dispute regarding a bill naming a courthouse. He said McCarthy would not put the bill on the floor, despite the support of the North Carolina delegation. He said one of the staffers was "not very congenial" and "I resented that." McCarthy promised things would change.

    Chaffetz: I'm an underdog

    Chaffetz told reporters before the meeting that he is "optimistic" but "realistic" about his chances -- knowing McCarthy has a wide swath of support already.
    "We're still an underdog, I get that, but we're going to give it a go," he said.
    He said even if he doesn't win -- and he pledged to support whoever the conference decides on in its closed-door vote -- it's still important to run.
    "I'm offering myself as an alternative, I still think that there is a need and a desire to unify this party; I think I'm uniquely situated to do that," Chaffetz said. "When Mr. Boehner ran, he ran unopposed, and I thought that that was wrong. And I thought that there needed to be a somebody that was offered as an alternative, so that's in part why I'm running."
    Leaving, Chaffetz said it was "a lot of fun" and he thinks he may have changed some minds. "But ask them," he said.

    'These guys are not conservatives'

    At the Capitol Hill Club for a separate meeting, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes trashed the Freedom Caucus members inside, calling for them to form their own party if they don't agree with the eventual nominee supported by a majority of the conference.
    "When you get out to the House floor, you have to vote for your party nominee," Nunes told reporters. "If you don't, then you need to go out and form your own party, which is fine. And I would strongly encourage those who don't want to be part of a caucus structure without our party, they should go out and form their party."
    The California Republican also took issue with reporters' characterization of the members as "conservatives."
    "These guys are not conservatives," Nunes said. "You can pick your name, I've given you plenty to choose from."
    Nunes has referred to the lawmakers as "right-wing Marxists" in past remarks.
    On his way in, Clawson was watching the Nunes scrum with a bemused look on his face.
    "I vote for outsiders, not career politicians," Clawson told CNN. "That's what Americans want, right?"