House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has a path to become the next House Speaker, and the ultra-conservative group that blocked his last bid for the post isn’t standing in his way – yet.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election triggered a battle for the position. McCarthy, R-Calif., currently the second-ranking House Republican, is expected to vie with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. Republicans, including Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, pointed to McCarthy as a frontrunner.
“It’s common knowledge. You would think if there’s a pecking order it would be the next man up,” Walker said. “But we’ll see if that happens or not.”
McCarthy was favored for the position in 2015 when John Boehner retired, but ultimately withdrew as he was opposed by the House Freedom Caucus, a staunchly conservative group of about three dozen House Republicans. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the current chairman, said it hasn’t decided who to back this time.
The sixth-term congressman has not announced he’s seeking the speakership, and had no comment Wednesday.
Since then, McCarthy has taken steps to woo his onetime skeptics.
Meadows said McCarthy has been “reaching out, trying to keep his promises to a number of members of the House Freedom Caucus that will serve him well in whatever race should he throw his hat in the ring,”
McCarthy has an advantage he lacked in his 2015 campaign for speaker: A friendly relationship with President Donald Trump. The congressman is regarded as one of Trump’s closest advisers in Congress, dining with him in Washington and Mar-a-Lago. That relationship could help him argue to fellow Republicans that he is in the best position to advance the White House agenda on Capitol Hill.
McCarthy was reportedly working with the president in recent weeks to get support for congressional recissions, or rollbacks, from the budget lawmakers enacted last month. Republicans were split over the bill. Freedom Caucus members have lambasted its passage.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to offer support for anyone in particular for the speakership at he Wednesday briefing.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the former chairman, mentioned McCarthy and Scalise but also said another candidate could be possible.
“(McCarthy) called me once over the break, but I talk with those guys all the time,” Jordan told McClatchy. “I’ve talked to Mr. Scalise and Mr. McCarthy.”
Meadows mentioned Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, House Natural Resources Committee chairman, as a dark horse candidate, because he was the speaker of the Utah House. Bishop has said his next term in Congress will be his last.
Currently the House has 238 Republicans. The GOP members elected in November will choose the next speaker if the party retains a majority. Walker said the Freedom Caucus would have more influence if GOP House numbers dwindle in 2018. That’s because most of the retiring Republicans tend to be more center-right members.
Jordan said the Freedom Caucus was looking for a “complete reset” in Congress, and gave a big example of why that would be needed: The budget bill that was passed last month.
“It’s time for a reset and a refocus on one primary objective: Doing what the American people elected us to do, doing what we told them we were going to do,” Jordan said. “And we did not do that four weeks ago on that big omnibus spending package, not even close.”
In 2015, Freedom Caucus members also said they were open to considering McCarthy at first, but ultimately rejected him for Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., who had little chance of winning. McCarthy subsequently withdrew his bid, calling for a candidate that could get the support of all Republicans.
In a statement at the time, the caucus said it saw McCarthy as a “continuation of the status quo” from Boehner. It also called for “significant changes to conference leadership,” a similar request to Jordan’s concerns Wednesday.
Ultimately, Ryan stepped in to take the speaker’s gavel at the urging of his House GOP colleagues.
Meadows said Wednesday that concerns over McCarthy were overblown in 2015 and it “certainly doesn’t apply this time.”
Freedom Caucus members, however, are still not entirely pleased with McCarthy’s leadership. They’ve been disappointed that House Republican leaders have yet to hold a vote on a conservative-authored immigration bill, backed by Virginia Republican Robert Goodlatte, that would impose strict new rules on both illegal and legal immigration and mandate an e-verify program for employers.
California’s agriculture industry, a major force in McCarthy’s Bakersfield-area home district, is strongly opposed to the bill.
McClatchy reporter Brian Murphy contributed to this report.