Power struggle between Republicans in the House


To hear them tell it, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise are buddy-buddy again. Forget about a potential showdown to lead the House Republican Conference: The only thing the No. 2 and 3 House Republicans care about is saving their majority, they insist.

But behind the scenes, the rivalry between the two men is as intense as ever, as the moment of reckoning to determine who will replace Paul Ryan draws closer — and the prospect of losing the House in the midterms grows.

Scalise has been busy raising his national profile in ways that some McCarthy allies feel threatens the California Republican’s bid to lead the conference. In recent months, Scalise, the majority whip, has staked out several hard-line positions favored by conservatives. His moves have put McCarthy in the awkward position of having to follow Scalise or anger the far-right, whose support McCarthy needs to become speaker.

Like McCarthy, Scalise has been barnstorming the country raising money for lawmakers, chits that could be quite valuable if there is an opening to lead the conference. His office frequently touts his fundraising, noting that his totals have eclipsed any previous GOP whip. Scalise’s team doesn’t spell out that McCarthy previously held the job, but the message is clear whom they’re comparing him to.

Scalise, who has backed McCarthy for speaker this spring but is considering a bid if McCarthy falls short, recently hired a former political operative for ex-Speaker John Boehner to coordinate his campaign efforts. The Louisiana Republican will name Grant Saunders, Boehner's former deputy executive director, as his political director this week.

Members and top aides are also privately speculating about whether Scalise would challenge McCarthy for minority leader. Republicans are increasingly concerned that they will lose the majority, though Scalise in an interview last week said he remains confident that won't happen.

And with Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan expected to run for the top leadership post, some House Republicans have wondered whether Scalise would run as a compromise option for Republicans wary of McCarthy or suspicious of Jordan.

For now, neither camp will discuss it. During a tri-city sweep in upstate New York last week, Scalise demurred on all questions leadership-related.

“Kevin and I are both friends,” Scalise told a cluster of reporters outside a fundraiser for Rep. Tom Reed fundraiser just south of the Finger Lakes. “And I think Kevin would tell you the same thing that I’m about to tell you: We are very focused right now on making sure that we do our job. Because if we worry about what our titles will be, a few months from now, Nancy Pelosi will be speaker by the time the counting is done.”

At a backyard barbecue in Syracuse, while more than 150 New York Republicans filled their plates with hotdogs and sautéed mushrooms, Scalise touted vulnerable Rep. John Katko’s work on bipartisan issues he said don’t get much attention in the press. Katko, he said, has “set a record for the most bills passed in a two-year period” — but Pelosi, he warned the crowd, “has targeted this district.”

“You know what is at stake this election,” Scalise said, standing on a deck overlooking donors gathered around a posh pool surrounded by flower beds. “We want to keep passing good bills and solving real problems, and this one guy has over 30 pieces of legislation signed into law. So it’s important that he come back!”

Lawmakers remember these sorts of favors. The ability to raise money and gin up the base undeniably factor into the conference's choice of leaders.

It’s one reason Scalise, who spoke without prepared remarks at three stops that day, and McCarthy have spent all of August on the trail. Of course, they want to keep the majority, but they also are seeking to build alliances ahead of the leadership struggle later this year.

Many House Republicans say McCarthy is still favored to lead the conference. He's next in line and remains the biggest fundraiser after Ryan. In August, he visited 20 cities on behalf of 35 incumbents, raking in more than $4 million. His office said he has raised just over $41 million as of mid-July, and as a "special guest" at several events, helped haul in an additional $20 million for 128 members and six candidates.

Much of that was done with the help of Vice President Mike Pence, who’s been raising money alongside the majority leader. Their joint fundraising committee has been seen by House Republicans as a sort of pass-the-baton arrangement for McCarthy, signifying that he’s next in line to take over for Ryan.

Still, Pence appears to have hedged his bets where leadership is concerned. He not only advised Trump to stay out the leadership struggle that’s expected to ensue after Election Day; Pence also agreed to hold a fundraiser with Scalise and open it up to the press in early August.

The event, which Scalise’s office said raised $1.4 million, drew notice from political observers who once again saw a whip working to raise his profile.

Scalise’s fundraising numbers are smaller, to be sure — though he doesn’t have Pence, a major draw for the party, with him on the trail. Scalise raised just over $12 million to date this cycle, roughly doubling what any previous whip raised at this point in the campaign season, his office notes. He's also been working to build out a digital fundraising platform, raising about $2 million over the past nine months from 40,000 mostly small donors.

That doesn’t include money Scalise helped raise for members. That was main focus here last week when he chartered a plane to hopscotch events for Katko, Reed and Elise Stefanik — all Democratic targets.

Back in Washington, everything Scalise and McCarthy do is being viewed through the lens of the looming leadership void. Scalise raised eyebrows when he appeared to back the conservative push to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in July — something Ryan and most of GOP leadership have firmly opposed.

The move jammed McCarthy, cornering him between Ryan, who has endorsed him as his successor, and Freedom Caucus leaders pushing impeachment. Exacerbating his dilemma was McCarthy’s close friend President Donald Trump, who has egged on conservatives in their crusade against Rosenstein.

“They need to comply with subpoenas in Congress, which is a basic constitutional duty that we have,” Scalise said of the Justice Department. “People want to see transparency. They’ve seen that there was corruption at the FBI, and frankly they ought to be working to help us root out bad apples.”

Scalise also drew notice when he pitched the idea of forcing Democrats to vote on their controversial proposal to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Republican Study Committee, garnering praise from rank and file. McCarthy allies said the idea to force such a vote was his idea, not Scalise’s.

Beyond that, Scalise’s full-on embrace of all things Trump has become increasingly glaring. He often goes on Fox News to defend the president. And during an interview aboard his chartered plane between campaign stops, Scalise backed Trump’s tough talk on trade and his posture toward Russia — typically touchy subjects for Republicans. At one point during the day, Scalise compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, a revered figure in the GOP.

"[There are] tangible signs that Trump's policies are working," said Scalise, who put the GOP's odds of keeping the House at "better than 50-50." "Ultimately, a strong economy with candidates and incumbents who know what’s coming at them is going to hold us [in] the majority."

In Reed’s district that day, Scalise dodged a New York reporter’s question about whether he’d change his mind about backing McCarthy and launch a bid for speaker. Instead, he touted Reed's reelection as though the GOP's majority was riding on it.

“If we lose Tom Reed’s district, we lost the majority,” he said, talking up Reed’s work on tax reform as part of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “We cut taxes and we’re making America great again. … And Nancy Pelosi wants to reverse that clock. Are we going to let her take it back?”

"No!” the crowd shouted.

Still, the leadership race was never far from the surface. A woman at the Katko barbecue prodded a Scalise staffer about whether he’d take the helm of the conference next year. And some constituents openly admitted they were there to get a glimpse of a possible future GOP leader.

“He has the potential to be speaker of the House if the Republicans hold on,” said William Shugarts, a retired professor at Reed’s event. “A lot of people have been pushing that, so I thought I’d come and see what he has to say.”

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