Candidates for House Republican leadership made their final pitches Wednesday morning, pressing for unity while leading their factions into what will be a divisive Thursday vote to decide the future of the conference.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California retained his position as a lock to become majority leader, although Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho is mounting an upstart challenge, driven by a simmering dissatisfaction with leadership.
But the race to replace McCarthy remains fluid. Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana got a boost Wednesday morning. Reps. Joe Pitts and Bill Shuster, both of Pennsylvania, pledged their support to Scalise and said they would whip their 11 GOP Keystone State colleagues, many of whom remain undecided, according to a source familiar with the group.
Their backing could put Scalise over the top. He has been leading the field, according to sources, by pressing the case for a red-state conservative at the leadership table. The support from a Northern state like Pennsylvania could shore up votes where he is weakest. Yet the group may not vote as a monolith; Rep. Tim Murphy said he already agreed to support Scalise’s rival, Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois.
The whip race is expected to go down to the wire. Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana is presenting an insurgent challenge to both Roskam and Scalise, syphoning off votes from both camps with a base of support in his massive class of members who came to power in 2010 .
If Stutzman cannot wrest at least a third of the conference — 78 votes — he will have to bow out of the contest and his supporters would have to choose between one of the other two men; many members believe that is the most likely outcome.
Each candidate emerged confident from a closed-door session of the Republican Conference after making their final case and taking questions from the group. There were few surprises, members said exiting the meeting, with the candidates touting their backgrounds and calling for the party to come together.
Asked about his strategy for shoring up the necessary votes should the whip race go to second ballot, Scalise said he has it under control.
"We've always said, whether it's a first ballot, second ballot, if it's a third ballot, we're working all the way through and we have a plan for each contingency," he told reporters. "When you got multiple people in the race, you got a possibility of holding the ballots."
"If your opponents' winning strategy is to come in second, then I'm here to help them achieve their goal," Scalise quipped.
Roskam avoided the press after the meeting. He smiled as reporters and cameras flanked him on all sides, at one point putting his finger to his lips to signal a commitment to staying silent.
Stutzman, meanwhile, told reporters that he believes he has tapped into a frustration with both top-billed candidates, and hopes to ride that to what would be a surprise victory.
“We have broad support,” he said, ticking off a list of his followers. “We’re going after everyone. … There is a lot of frustration in the conference.”
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former RSC chairman an influential conservative who was at one point being urged to run for majority leader himself, said he is backing Stutzman because they have fostered a close relationship over the past three and a half years.
"Marlin is the guy I was assigned to in a mentor program," Jordan said. "We became close and I said 'yes' when asked to support him."
The core of Stutzman’s constituency comes from the 2010 class, said Rep. Tom Reed of New York, a classmate who has been helping whip for the Indiana congressman's candidacy and who knows Stutzman and his family well.
“I think it’s time for our class to start to come together and exert more influence around here,” Reed said. “In 2010, we were sent here to change the status quo of Washington, and I think there’s now an opportunity to really be at the table influencing the direction of the conference.”
The 2010 class support is not extending to Labrador, Reed said. He is backing McCarthy instead.
Labrador nevertheless remained upbeat, speaking to reporters down the length of the long tunnel of the Cannon House Office Building.
"I'm changing a lot of minds," he said. "I hope I can change enough."
He said he would focus his role as the No. 2 Republican to "change the way we do things on the floor," including the controversial voice-vote that took place on the "doc-fix" legislation earlier this year. "We need to keep rules so the conference can actually stay together, and know that whether they win or lose on their issues, they've been treated fairly by the conference."
Labrador said he had assured colleagues that he could be trusted to handle immigration overhaul legislation responsibly.
"I have told them that I have no willingness to bring immigration reform up until [President Barack Obama] starts securing the border and he does something right now about the crisis at the border with all the children," Labrador said.
Some colleagues worry, however, that Labrador's work on immigration legislation in the past would make him more amenable to moving something forward that doesn't have support from the hardline conservatives in the conference. But Labrador said no one should be concerned: "I have told them to look at what I have done and what I have said when I talk about immigration reform. I've said everything that the president needs to do before we actually start talking about doing something on the floor."
Not everyone is convinced. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has taken to Twitter to put out open calls for a majority leader candidate who is "anti-amnesty." Labrador, he said, does not fit that description, even if Labrador is being cast as the "conservative alternative" to McCarthy.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., agrees with King. He's also backing McCarthy.
"[Labrador] was part of the gang of eight, he was supporting immigration reform, and I had a discussion with him and he said he would be willing to move immigration reform while President Obama was still in office and I disagreed with him on that," Fleming told reporters.
Asked if he was supporting McCarthy because of assurances that the current whip wouldn't move on immigration while Obama was in the White House, Fleming said that was an "open question," but suggested that he would prefer to hedge his bets with McCarthy than trust Labrador on the issue.
"I think there's a lot of anxiety among those of us who feel that amnesty is the wrong way to go on this and we're holding our leadership accountable for managing this correctly," Fleming said.
A source familiar with McCarthy's thinking told CQ Roll Call that McCarthy would, as majority leader, only agree to put an immigration bill on the legislative calendar if Obama proved he could be trusted, and if the conference is united behind a specific plan on action.
Throughout the week of intense campaigning, the only candidate noticeably absent from the public has been McCarthy, who is cementing his status behind the scenes as the heir apparent to Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia after he unexpectedly lost his primary last week. Neither McCarthy — not Cantor, for that matter — participated in the weekly leadership press conference Tuesday morning.
Related stories: Would-Be Whips Woo Conservatives, Reassure Moderates 2010 Class Plots Comeback Strategy in Late-Night Meeting Labrador Appeals Directly to Colleagues for Support in Majority Leader Race Roskam-Scalise Whip Race Heats Up, Gets Ugly Stutzman Enters Whip Race, Complicating Scalise Chances FreedomWorks Wants Labrador for Majority Leader Is Boehner’s Gavel on the Line? Labrador in 2013: GOP Could Support Path to Legalization for Illegal Immigrants Stunner: Cantor Loss Changes Everything Get breaking news alerts on the whip race and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.