In the early days of the 111th Congress, many observers assumed that between repeated electoral defeats and an angry constituency, the existing guard of GOP leaders would not survive into the 112th — that a power struggle would ensue and new top dogs would emerge. But in the days before the election, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Over the course of the last two years, John Boehner has, against expectations, consolidated his power. And GOP sources say they expect a more or less ordinary transition if the Republicans win back the majority.
“The leadership races operate without the same pressure of external forces that normal campaigns and elections operate under,” says a former GOP leadership aide. “Blog posts, articles, public profile with the media, etc., don’t impact the folks voting in the conference on leadership the way they might in a normal election setting.”
Translation: the right flank of the caucus, and conservative activists, might be clamoring for new blood, but this decision will be made transactionally, via secret ballot, and the current leadership team will likely survive.
In particular, conservative activists don’t tend to hold the top two House Republicans — Boehner, and Whip Eric Cantor — in the highest esteem. Particularly Cantor. At the influential conservative blog Red State, Erick Erickson spoke for legions of conservatives, who are hoping against hope that Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence becomes a major influence peddler next Congress.
Ironically, Pence is the current member of leadership most likely to step aside, as he preps for a potential run for the Presidency or for Governor of Indiana.
All of this means Boehner should have no problem securing the Speakership, and Cantor should glide into the role of Majority Leader with little turbulence. (The Speaker is elected by the full House in a public vote on the first day of the new Congress. All other leadership positions are determined within the individual parties.)
“There are people, I’m not sure members, but people hoping to stop Cantor from becoming leader, because people don’t like Cantor,” says a top GOP strategist. “It feels like it’s going nowhere.
If Cantor gets the bump, that will leave the whip position open. GOP sources say the smart money is that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will get the nod over NRCC chair Pete Sessions. By building the Young Guns program, McCarthy has earned the sort of loyalty and respect from members and candidates that’s crucial for a successful Whip operation. How does the right feel about McCarthy? “McCarthy is a good guy and I appreciate both his work in building a new Republican majority [but] he is most definitely not by any stretch of the imagination outside of California, an across the board conservative.”
“Sessions might run against him for whip,” the strategist said. “That’s a potential showdown, but those are both Boehner people, and it’s hard to imagine Boehner tolerating that.”
The Tea Party wing of the caucus could get some red meat. Republican sources say conservative Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) could take his friend Pence’s old job as Conference Chair if Pence steps aside. For more on that potential transition, read this piece in Roll Call (subs req).
Not everything will necessarily go so smoothly, though. There’s real potential for a power struggle on two of the Hill’s most powerful committees — Energy and Commerce and Appropriations. The current ranking member on Energy and Commerce, Joe Barton, is itching for a fight over the gavel, but he will be a political liability for Republicans, many of whom have battled with him in the past. After he apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward, Republican aides suggested that he’d be term limited out of contention for the chairmanship, but the party’s rules aren’t clear on that point. It could come down to the caucus to choose between Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI).
Likewise, the Appropriations Committee gavel will be up for grabs. The current ranking member — Jerry Lewis (R-CA) — is already campaigning for the chairmanship. But he’s headed the committee in the past and has a well-earned reputation as a pork fiend — something that will not appeal to newly-elected conservatives.
And therein lies one note of caution: If Republicans win, these decisions probably won’t be made until January, after the new class has been seated. And the bigger the Republican victory — the more new GOP members — the more uncertainty will be thrown into all this handicapping. And, of course, all bets are off if the Democrats manage to hold the majority.
Once the dust settles, though, it’s likely to get kicked up all over again. The GOP base wants radical action, major coups, and possibly even impeachment. And already Republicans are disappointing them by shying away from promising the most drastic steps.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.