House Republicans huddle as leadership candidates make their pitch

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One day before they will vote on a new majority leader -- and, likely, a new whip -- House Republicans gathered in the basement of the Capitol building Wednesday morning to hear pitches from candidates.

Just after 8 a.m., the candidates vying to replace Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) as majority leader began speaking. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is expected to easily win the contest, but is facing a challenge from Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho), who has built some tea party support.

According to people in the room, McCarthy delivered a quick speech that stressed the need to work with Senate Republicans. Labrador vowed to be a high-profile majority leader who would have more television appearances and national presence than Cantor had during his time in leadership.

After close to 40 minutes of question-and-answer with the majority leader candidates, attention turned briefly to the whip race -- a three-way contest that remains fluid and could require multiple votes to settle on a winner.

Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the well-connected chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), seemed best-positioned to emerge victorious, arguing that his roots and right-wing views make him a natural choice for the influential but wavering blocs of Southerners and tea party conservatives.

"We're looking for a new voice at the leadership table and we clearly bring that," Scalise said as he made his way into the meeting.

Almost two hours later, as he left the meeting room, he added: "...rather be us than them."

Yet the race is far from decided, with Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), the mild-mannered chief deputy whip, and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (Ind.), a youthful conservative voice, possibly gaining ground.

According to people in the room, Roskam stressed the need for the House GOP to better communicate its deep conservative convictions in order to re-connect with a base that has lost confidence in its lawmakers. Stutzman, meanwhile, framed the caucus as a baseball team and stressed the need for teamwork.

Scalise’s advisers said he has more than 100 votes, putting him close to the 117 needed to win 51 percent of the 233-member House GOP conference. Roskam’s allies said he has nearly 90 votes, while Stutzman’s supporters said he was hovering around 50.

If no one reaches 117 votes on the first ballot, the top two finishers will move on to a second ballot.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), told reporters outside the forum that he supports Scalise, but refused to say if he would support Scalise on a second ballot.

"I don't play those games," Issa said.

While highly anticipated and staked out by the media, the candidate forum was not heavily attended by House Republicans who had not previously declared an allegiance in the leadership races.

As members left the forum,  which paused for the 9 a.m. GOP conference meeting, some said that the debate inside was not ideological, but rather largely procedural.

"There's a lot of frustration in our party and this is a good opportunity for those who are undecided or want to force a certain candidate to give a view on how we should proceed," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.). "This is wonderful. I don't think this is damaging to our party and it's very positive."

Others said that they are ready for the leadership election process to come to a close.

"I would hope we could get some stability but we'll see what happens," said Rep. Peter King (R-King), who said he is supporting McCarthy and Roskam. "There are no dramatic differences with anyone."

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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