Speaker Candidates Woo House Conservatives

Speaker Candidates Woo House Conservatives
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The three declared candidates for House speaker made their pitches Tuesday night to the conservative lawmakers who helped force John Boehner to resign last month, each one seeking the support needed to win Thursday’s election.

For a little over two hours, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Rep. Daniel Webster stated their cases to about 50 lawmakers from the House Freedom Caucus and other groups.  

McCarthy, who was widely viewed as the frontrunner in the race when Boehner first announced his resignation, had a simple message:

“I think McCarthy’s pitch was ‘I’m not John Boehner, I’m going to run things differently. I’m my own man,’” said Rep. Blake Farenthold upon leaving the meeting, which was closed to the press. “And I think that’s a case that he does have to make. One of the things I hear all the time from my constituents back in Texas is ‘We don’t want John Boehner 2.0. We want a true leader that’s willing to go head-to-head with the Senate, head-to-head with the president, and who’s not afraid to stand in front of microphones like this and make the conservative case.’”

Many on Capitol Hill have voiced doubts about McCarthy because of his role on the current leadership team, and because of controversial comments he made suggesting that the Select Committee on Benghazi had a political purpose of hurting Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. He addressed the comment at Tuesday’s meeting.

“He did mention he made a gaffe,” Farenthold said.

Chaffetz, who entered the race over the weekend, much to the surprise and chagrin of McCarthy, said his pitch was that he would operate the Republican conference in a bottom-up fashion, not top-down.

“I think that the speaker works for the body as opposed to the body working for the speaker, and that’s part of the strategy I plan to share,” the Utah congressman told reporters as he was walking into the meeting. Afterward, Chaffetz said he thought he had won over some members.

Webster, who received 12 votes when he challenged Boehner for the speakership in January, is running again on the platform that he would be as effective in instituting changes as he was when serving as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

“Principle-based, not power-based system. That’s it,” Webster said upon leaving the meeting. “It means there’s a pyramid of power with a few people at the top of that pyramid making all the decisions. Principle-based pushes down the pyramid of the power, spreads out the base so that every member can be effective. I did it in Florida and I can do it again.”

The speaker candidates are meeting with a wide array of lawmakers ahead of Thursday’s vote, which is held within the GOP conference and requires just a simple majority of the 246 House Republicans to become the nominee for speaker. Conservatives constitute a particularly important voting bloc, however, because they have often disagreed with and caused problems for party leadership so far this year, and have been the most vocal about wanting changes within the conference.

There is no guarantee that most of the conservatives would coalesce around a particular nominee, who would then need 218 votes on the House floor later this month to be elected. The consensus opinion expressed by those leaving Tuesday’s meeting was that none of the three candidates has that level of support yet.

Rep. Mark Meadows said there were as many as 40 conservative members still undecided, which would be enough to leave a candidate short of the necessary votes to become speaker. Asked how McCarthy did in making the case that he would be different than Boehner, Meadows said he “made a compelling case tonight,” but the North Carolina lawmaker has not announced whom he will support.

Iowa Rep. Steve King said he was “impressed” with the way Webster said he would structure the House, but has yet to make up his mind on a candidate. King said he doesn’t think any of the hopefuls could have gotten elected if the vote for a speaker nominee had been held Tuesday night. 

“Hopefully by Thursday we can get there,” he said. “It’s going to be a little difficult though.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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