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Boehner Throws Leadership Races a Curveball

Boehner, right, said the decision on down-ballot leadership races will be up to his successor. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

In the latest plot twist to House Republicans' leadership drama, Speaker John A. Boehner announced Monday that potential majority leader and majority whip contests would only take place if Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is confirmed as speaker on the floor at the end of October.  

Boehner set Oct. 29 as the date for a floor vote for speaker, after which the person holding that title could set the date — if necessary — for a majority leader race, which could then set off a majority whip race. And while the domino-effect timetable might not change the outcome, the extra weeks of uncertainty about GOP leadership has some happy and others worried. If, as expected, McCarthy wins Thursday in what is now functionally a nomination to be speaker, he will have to survive three weeks as the designee while conservatives and rivals try to mobilize against him.  

Republicans will go home to their districts and hear from voters who are already frustrated with the status quo. Outside conservative voices — the California Republican has been decried as too moderate by conservative talkers such as Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin — will have weeks to rally opposition and fundraise off of efforts to stop McCarthy.  

It is perhaps that anticipated backlash that prompted Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to jump into the speaker race. And it's perhaps why, as Chaffetz told reporters on Monday , he doesn't see the speaker race as over until someone is confirmed on the floor.  

“I think, increasingly, members are recognizing that their constituents don’t want to perpetuate the status quo, that simply giving existing leadership a promotion is not going to work well at all,” Chaffetz said.  

The question in Chaffetz's mind “is, when will our conference come to the realization that we have to have a new, fresh person as our speaker?" he said. "I don’t know if that happens before Thursday, before we go to the floor, even after we go to the floor.”  

But naming McCarthy as speaker-designee and waiting on the majority leader race may also give some of that conservative anger a release valve. Conservatives and other Republicans who feel like they're not being heard could focus on the majority leader election. Perhaps more candidates for the position could emerge.  

Either way, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who is said to have more than 140 votes committed to him, is publicly showing confidence.  

"Our team is strong and growing," Chris Bond, a spokesman for Scalise said, "and we look forward to having all these elections take place as soon as our conference is ready."  

"As soon as our conference is ready" may be a subjective term, but Boehner's decision to delay the down-ballot races seems to be a strategy to strengthen the conference.  

In his statement announcing the change, Boehner said, "This new process will ensure House Republicans have a strong, unified team to lead our conference and focus on the American people's priorities."  

Boehner seems to recognize there's an appetite for change in the conference. Hanging over the races are a slate of proposals that would fundamentally alter how Republicans elect their leaders.  

On Sunday, Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and James B. Renacci, R-Ohio, were collecting signatures for a special conference meeting to further discuss all the potential election changes members want. First and foremost was a delay for the other races. On a conference call later that evening where Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., told supporters he had locked up enough support to be the next whip, some members urged their colleagues to not sign the letter, according to a source on the call.  

Some of the changes Republicans are discussing range from making members in leadership vacate their existing position to run for a new spot to punishing members who vote against the speaker nominee on the floor.  

An effort requiring Republicans to vote for whoever wins in conference certainly could help McCarthy, but it also could exacerbate the tension in the conference between conservatives and more establishment Republicans.  

In the near-term, the one change Mulvaney and Renacci were pushing strongly for — postponing potential races for majority leader and whip — has already been granted. That has to come with some disappointment for candidates such as Scalise and McHenry, both of whom feel they have their races in the bag. (A source close to McHenry told CQ Roll Call Monday the North Carolina Republican "already enjoys support from a significant majority of the conference in the race for whip.")  

For other contenders — such as Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia for leader, and Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas for whip — a little more time for Republicans to think about these races isn't such a bad thing. As a source close to Sessions told CQ Roll Call, "the decision to delay these elections reflects the fact that our conference needs to sit down and think about our choices long and hard."  

"We are at a crossroads in this party," the source continued, "and these races that were already in flux are now even more in question."  

Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and GOP Policy Chairman Luke Messer on Oct. 3 announced in a "Dear Colleague" letter they would form a "working group" to open up the rules and procedures of the House. Part of the changes yet to come could be alterations to elections.  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Correction 5:47 p.m. A previous version of this article misstated the date on which McMorris Rodgers' and Messer's letter was circulated.

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