House Republicans elect new leaders: Who are they?

After the defeat of Eric Cantor, House Republicans were forced to elect a new House majority leader and whip. A look at who they are, and how they might lead.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The new House Republican leadership team was set on Thursday. It includes Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California (c.), who will be majority leader, and Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana (l.), who will be majority whip. They're joined by House Speaker John Boehner (r.) during this press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

House Republicans today voted in a new set of leaders after current majority leader Eric Cantor was defeated in a stunning upset by a conservative newcomer in Virginia's June 10 Republican primary. Here's a look at who they are and how they might work together:

House majority leader: Kevin McCarthy

Rep. Kevin McCarthy – the first Californian to serve as House majority leader – has a gift for building relationships, starting as a young man when he used $5,000 of lottery winnings to open a deli and build customers in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. He new job is an upward move from his post as majority whip in the House, the No. 3 job in leadership.

He was elected to Congress in 2006 and headed up candidate recruiting for House Republicans in the 2010 election cycle. That’s the year that put the House back in Republican control, thanks to a wave of new tea partyers – who know Congressman McCarthy, of course.

His informal personal style couldn’t be more different from the polished style of Congressman Cantor. “Cantor’s very professional. Kevin seems to fly by the seat of his pants a little bit, but I think that’s good,” says McCarthy supporter Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California.

“McCarthy is more affable," he adds. "He takes his coat off for every meeting. He’s rolled up his sleeves. He’s not worried about being formal and having to look polished.”

McCarthy bicycles with members along the C&O canal or in Rock Creek Park, works out with them in the gym, invites them to dinners, and travels to their districts to support them and fundraise.

Policy is not his specialty, although he takes a special interest in technology and energy. What counts in the majority leader’s job is political skill. As whip, McCarthy has not always been able to round up the votes sought by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio – for instance, he failed to deliver tea party conservatives on the speaker’s fiscal proposals in 2011 and 2012.

But overall, tea party freshmen backed the party line 92 percent of the time – the same rate for lawmakers from both parties in the House, according to an October 2012 study by McClatchy Newspapers cited by the National Journal Almanac.  

Thus, McCarthy was able to keep those hounds in the pack most of the time.

House majority whip: Steve Scalise

Rep. Steve Scalise's first-ballot victory in Thursday's leadership vote marks the first time a tea party flag bearer has made it into the core leadership group that runs the House.

Mr. Scalise, a staunch conservative from Louisiana, was elected to the No. 3 position in the GOP leadership, the whip who rounds up votes for a bill.

The Louisianan made an effort to talk to every one of the 233 Republicans in the House in his run for the whip job with the sales pitch that he represents a solid red state and a conservative voice.

FreedomWorks, which backs tea party candidates, gives him a gold star for voting according to the group’s principles at least 90 percent of the time. Indeed, this year he voted against increasing the federal debt ceiling, the farm bill, and the bipartisan budget. Last year, he voted against the deal that reopened the federal government and, despite hailing from a hurricane-bashed state, against federal relief for hurricane Sandy. He’s a booster of oil and gas while denouncing claims of man-made climate change.

He's also chairman of the Republican Study Group of House conservatives.

Scalise got an early start as a potential whip when he was a boy, riding his bicycle around his Louisiana neighborhood, and calling people to the polls over his battery-powered microphone.

But the whip job involves more than vote-counting. “He sits at the table when making decisions about the agenda and about the party,” says James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies at American University.

The National Journal Almanac describes Scalise as “close” to Mr. Boehner, but willing to cross him. It also says he is “known for his sense of humor and is friendly with many Democrats.”

The job of whip requires the personal touch. The question is whether the touch of Scalise will unite or further divide House Republicans.

Speaker: John Boehner

House Republicans may have just finished electing a new majority leader and a new whip to their leadership team – but the suspense isn't over for Boehner, who can expect a challenge after the midterm elections in November, some members say.

The 12-term Ohio lawmaker has held the speakership since 2011, when Republicans took control of the House on a wave of tea party support. Speculation persists on the Hill that he will retire from that position, having had enough of the internal war between strong conservatives and the establishment, which got a surprise rebuke with the Cantor defeat.

If he doesn’t retire, expect a challenge, says Congressman Hunter. “Who knows what’s going to happen in the fall” when the leadership will be up for election, he told reporters. “What I can guarantee you is that there will be some races … I don’t think anybody will be uncontested.

Despite Boehner’s accommodation of the tea party conservatives, including backing off his one-on-one negotiations with President Obama on raising the debt limit and not standing in the way of a partial government shutdown, many conservatives still feel he’s still not listening. They would like him to be much more aggressive in holding the line on fiscal issues.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who was among a group of conservatives who tried to topple Boehner in 2013, says that Cantor’s defeat is a message to the entire leadership, which he describes as “tone deaf.”

The speaker’s job is not easy. Boehner has said that finding the 218 votes needed to pass legislation in the House is like trying to keep “frogs in a wheelbarrow.” His style is consensus building. He lets experience be the great teacher – for instance, guiding his caucus through a backlash in public opinion after last fall’s partial-government shutdown, which he initially warned against.

Some Republicans can’t imagine anyone else to doing the job.

Cantor’s ouster makes Boehner “the indispensible man,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma. “We can’t have a new majority leader, a new whip, a new deputy whip, and then a new speaker in a matter of months. He really is the glue that holds this conference together.”

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