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Rules Could Complicate Leadership Fight (Updated)

Scalise listens as McCarthy speaks Tuesday during a new conference on Capitol Hill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 9:26 p.m. | A rules fight could determine who holds power in the House Republican Conference under a new speaker when the elections are held on Oct. 8.  

While Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California remains the odds-on favorite to inherit John A. Boehner’s gavel, the race for his position remains fluid and that has caused all kinds of uncertainty down the ballot. One of the leading candidates for House whip says elected members of the conference leadership — such as current Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — should vacate their own positions in order to run for a higher office.  

“I think it’s critical,” said Pete Sessions of Texas, Rules chairman, former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee and declared candidate for the whip job.  

Sessions told reporters Tuesday night that anyone with an elected leadership post should resign their current posts if they want to move up. That would include Scalise.  

“I think that's fair. I think they’ll be held accountable that way so we should go in and know that,” Sessions said.  

Current GOP rules simply state that vacancies trigger an election, and leadership aides said since there would be no new vacancy, Scalise would get to keep his current job by default if he loses the race for majority leader to Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia — assuming McCarthy beats Daniel Webster of Florida for the speaker’s gavel and creates an opening for the No. 2 job.  

If Scalise loses the race for leader, that would mean no vacancy for whip, freezing out Sessions and others with aspirations for the role, including Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, Dennis A. Ross of Florida and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.  

Sessions said the existing rule is “muddled” and should be clarified before voting takes place. Then people can decide whether they agree or disagree with the rule.  

Sessions said chairmen shouldn't have to give up their gavels to run for leadership.  

“I serve at the will of the speaker, I don’t serve at the will of the conference,” he said, though technically the conference has the power to veto the speaker’s choice.  

Sessions said the issue of the rule has come up in almost every conversation he’s had in his race for the whip post.  

On Wednesday, Sessions said he’s not driving the rules effort, but a “huge number of people,” including members of the Republican Study Committee, are talking about writing into the rules a requirement that elected members of leadership vacate their position before seeking another office.  

“You have to honestly run for a seat, give advice and consent and it's really what everybody expects,” Sessions said.  

"For people on the outside to have confidence in what we are doing, we either need to announce they're all up, we're starting over, which I do not believe is necessarily what we're after, but at least if you're going to run for something else, then you have to put your seat up and say that is now in play,” he said.  

A spokeswoman for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., confirmed her boss was taking a lead role.  

"Rep. Westmoreland has introduced a conference resolution, however we don’t have a timeline yet," she told CQ Roll Call in an email. "There was healthy and robust debate ... and we look forward to the members continuing the conversation."  

Westmoreland broached the topic at Wednesday's weekly meeting of the RSC, of which he is a member, and which both Price and Scalise formerly chaired.  

The fight has all sorts of impact on the electoral dynamics inside the conference, because it gives a strong incentive for candidates further down the ballot to back McCarthy’s and Scalise’s bids in hopes of creating an opening for themselves.  

But not everyone is happy with the idea of a process that would ensure more turnover at the top of the GOP.  

Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California didn’t sound enthused with the idea of changing the rules and forcing people to vacate their posts in the middle of a Congress.  

“The rules have always been the rules. ... Kind of a little harder to change 'em now. ... If you vacate every single position, I mean, that would kind of deliver some chaos, I would think," Nunes said.  

The leadership election rules aren’t the only ones lawmakers are discussing. Some members of the House Freedom Caucus are pressing for rules that would protect members who defy the speaker from retribution. Some moderates want to do the opposite and spell out punishments for Republicans who vote against the conference’s choice for speaker, members told CQ Roll Call.  

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a Freedom Caucus member, said he’d also like to see other rules changes, including having committees elect their own chairmen.  

“That divorces the committee chairmanships from the financial pressures that are required in order to obtain a committee chairmanship,” and better facilitates relationships between chairmen and those who serve on the panels, he said.  

Brooks said in his meetings with McCarthy and Webster this week he has pushed more for changing the party’s internal processes to better balance the representation of the diversity of the party’s views than on specific policy pledges.  

He acknowledged it’s more likely major rules changes will wait until the next Congress.  

Correction 8:56 p.m. An earlier version of this story misstated Sessions' proposal. It would not apply to committee chairmen.  

Correction 6:45 p.m. An earlier version of this story attached the wrong pronoun to Westmoreland's name. Westmoreland is male.  

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