Inside the battle for the next House speaker

Updated 11:51 AM EDT, Mon September 28, 2015
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Story highlights

Hours after John Boehner announced his resignation, the California Republican spoke to nearly every GOP lawmaker in his caucus

Kevin McCarthy has not publicly declared his speakership bid

(CNN) —  

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who is quietly locking down support to be the next House speaker, is privately assuring Republicans he’ll take a tougher stand against the White House – and also the Senate GOP leadership, according to people familiar with the talks.

Hours after Rep. John Boehner abruptly announced Friday that he’d resign his speakership, the California Republican has spoken to nearly every GOP lawmaker in his caucus, seeking their input and calling for party unity, according to a person with knowledge of the conversations.

He’s hearing from members angry that the GOP Congress has not advanced the conservative cause more forcefully, and he’s responding with a clear message: He is willing to take a more confrontational stand with the White House and the Senate to achieve the results the party has sought to enact, according to several people who have spoken to the House majority leader.

Related: John Boehner’s resignation spells trouble for Jeb Bush

That pitch could appease conservatives who have grown frustrated that Boehner had not been aggressive enough with President Barack Obama or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who is deeply unpopular in much of the House GOP conference. That approach would immediately be put to test in what will likely be a contentious fall and winter, when Congress will have to deal with a spate of fiscal matters.

But a major question facing McCarthy is how the roughly 30 members in the House Freedom Caucus will handle the vote for speaker. The group, which has been a persistent thorn in the GOP leadership’s side, has not yet endorsed a candidate for speaker. If it united against the California Republican, it could prevent him from securing 218 votes on the floor to become the next speaker. McCarthy is expected to meet with members of the group this week.

The behind-the-scenes chatter also highlights how House and Senate Republicans have quickly turned their robust majority on Capitol Hill into a growing internal feud that threatens the rest of their party’s agenda in the 114th Congress.

House Republicans are expected to meet this week behind closed doors to talk about their future, but leadership elections are not likely until next week at the earliest. Rep. Daniel Webster, a conservative from Florida who won just 12 votes when he ran against Boehner in January, is the only other announced candidate so far.

Read: Why John Boehner quit

While McCarthy has not publicly declared his speakership bid, and a spokesman did not comment for this story, the California Republican is widely expected to win the job when leadership elections occur later this month, though he’ll have to work for it. While members are expressing much frustration with what they see as a failure to challenge the status quo, several sources said, McCarthy has urged his caucus to quickly unite in order to begin the healing process.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a frequent thorn in Boehner’s side, acknowledged Sunday that McCarthy has “an inside track” to win the speakership, calling him a “ground-up” type of leader.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney said the “important question” is “will they change for the better or will we simply replace Mr. Boehner with somebody else who will do the same thing.”

Related: John Boehner’s exit makes shutdown less likely

Leadership elections are a popularity contest of sorts. And in his eight years in the House, the 50-year-old McCarthy has developed deep relationships through the different ideological factions in the House, a major reason why his rapid ascent seems all-but assured.

The jockeying comes as Boehner’s plan to resign on Oct. 30 has set off a furious scramble to fill out the rest of the leadership team, which sets the agenda and determines the party’s direction. In the 48 hours since Boehner’s announcement, it’s become increasingly clear that House Republicans view the Senate as much of an impediment to achieving their goals as the White House.

Tension between the House and Senate is nothing new, of course, given the different rules of the respective bodies. The House, with its majority-rules system, allows the governing party to run roughshod over the minority – whereas the Senate, and its 60-vote hurdle to clear a filibuster – gives enormous power for an individual member to bring the chamber to a halt.

Since assuming both houses in January, House and Senate Republicans have increasingly sparred over tactics, starting in February over immigration legislation, continuing this spring and summer in a battle over surveillance laws and highway funding – and most recently over the strategy to defund Planned Parenthood.

To that end, the crowded field of candidates who are seeking the job to be majority leader – the No. 2 spot that McCarthy currently holds – are making clear their desire to take the fight to Senate Republicans as well, according to lawmakers and aides.

Read: John Boehner trashes conservative groups who force agenda

The lawmakers who have been making calls this weekend to build support for their bids include Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Tom Price of Georgia. There are others, too, who may make forays for the No. 2 job, including Reps. Pete Sessions of Texas and Illinois’ Peter Roskam, who successfully pushed for the GOP to hold a private meeting to debate their future before holding leadership elections.

A Roskam aide said Monday that the Illinois Republican currently is not making calls for a leadership position.

Sources familiar with the conversations said that lawmakers are espousing “serious” anger with the GOP’s lack of direction – a sentiment that goes well beyond the conservative House Freedom Caucus. The group has not yet endorsed a candidate for speaker but called Sunday for a “deliberative” process.

Indeed, the timing of the leadership elections also presents a challenge for McCarthy and the new team. They don’t want to look like they are jamming their members, but at the same time, many don’t want the fight to drag on during what will be a busy and contentious October session.

Before the new leadership team is officially elected, Boehner could presumably try to resolve a number of hot-button issues – namely raising the debt ceiling or reviving the controversial Export-Import Bank. But no decision has yet been made on how to proceed

In his conversations, one source said, McCarthy is still telling his members he wants to see legislation pass and achieve policy victories – and not just act as an obstructive body. For some Republicans, that message could resonate.

“We have to govern,” Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, said Friday. “We don’t get to go on talk radio and say whatever we want.”

CNN’s Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.