Cantor resigns leadership post in effort to smooth House transition

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WASHINGTON — Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., resigned as House majority leader Wednesday, completing a precipitous fall after his stunning loss in a primary and setting off an internal battle to remake the upper ranks of House leadership.

Mr. Cantor’s move, effective July 31, stopped a political a trajectory that would have made him the first Jewish speaker of the House and instead will leave him with a place in history he never sought, as the first majority leader to lose a primary.

Republicans set leadership elections for next Thursday, and by stepping down as majority leader quickly, Mr. Cantor hoped to limit a festering struggle within the House Republican conference over who would assume his post — a feud likely to push an already-conservative House GOP leadership further to the right and embolden the chamber’s most stubborn conservatives, who have long chafed at what they saw as too much accommodation of the administration.

GOP's Eric Cantor announces resignation from leadership

Congressional leader Eric Cantor, R. Va., told his fellow Republicans he will resign from his leadership job on July 31, just before the long summer break. (Reuters video; 6/11/2014)

Mr. Cantor quickly threw his support behind his “dear friend and colleague,” California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip, the No. 3 leadership position. But Texas Rep. Pete Sessions said he would seek the majority leader’s spot and would make border security — not an immigration overhaul — his primary focus. “Our conference does need to move to a more conservative perspective,” he said.

In a closed-door meeting  Wednesday afternoon of House Republicans, Speaker John A. Boehner gave a speech he said he had never expected to give. “Winston Churchill once famously said: ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts,’” he said. “I can tell you, there’s plenty of wisdom in that statement.”

In defeat, Mr. Cantor leaned on his Jewish faith. In announcing his decision to step down, he told his colleagues of a Holocaust survivor he met who put political travails in perspective. He told reporters that in his religious studies, “you learn a lot about individual setbacks. You also learn each setback is an opportunity, and there’s always optimism for the future.”

That optimism also shifted to conservative lawmakers, who only weeks ago were being marginalized by their leaders. On Wednesday, they said they received overtures all day from those who hoped to lead them next. “There sounds like a lot of movement out there for a more conservative faction for leadership,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who got his first text message from a leadership candidate Wednesday morning.

The shock waves from Mr. Cantor’s defeat by Tea Party candidate David Brat — and his quick exit from the leadership stage — will have broad ramifications for the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term and the Republican Party’s efforts to regain the White House. Conservative Republicans say their districts are seething with anger over what Tea Party voters see as weak leadership in the fight against an “imperial presidency.”

“That’s what we’re seeing around America. I know in my district people are upset. People want government to be accountable, to start doing what they were sent up to do,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who in 2012 defeated an entrenched but conservative incumbent in a primary.

In the meeting Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Boehner sought to put to rest any talk of a brush fire that could sweep into the speaker’s office, declaring that he would seek re-election as speaker in the next Congress. Supporters had encouraged him to declare now, before the House’s most conservative Republicans became too emboldened. “With shake-ups like this, it’s really important to have a steady hand on top,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “You can’t lose both of those guys at once,” he added about Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor.

Some conservatives indicated that they may not be happy unless Mr. Boehner has a scare. “I’m leaving an open mind to that question,” Mr. Fleming said. “I think undoubtedly everything will be up for discussion.”

The contest between Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Sessions will tug hard at the Tea Party class of 2010. Mr. Sessions headed the National Republican Congressional Committee in that year, a Tea Party wave, and he enters the leadership race with the large Texas delegation behind him.

But Mr. McCarthy headed candidate recruitment in 2010. He pushed to expand the electoral map into long-held Democratic districts, pursued unusual candidates who he believed fit the newly drawn districts of 2010, and crisscrossed the nation on their behalf. He also brings his own large whip operation to the race to counter the Texans.

Mr. Sessions put himself forward as the man who beat his own Tea Party challenger handily this year. “I admire Eric and think he has done a phenomenal job, but with that said, unfortunately he lost,” Mr. Sessions said. “We have to refocus on winning.”

If Mr. McCarthy wins the No. 2 position, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, Mr. McCarthy’s chief deputy whip, will square off against Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, for Mr. McCarthy’s House majority whip position. Mr. Scalise could seek the post regardless.

Conservatives have groused for more than a year that the top four leadership posts belong to members from Ohio, Virginia, California and Washington, all states that voted for Mr. Obama. The demand for “red state leadership” could spell trouble for Mr. Roskam, should Mr. McCarthy prevail. The No. 4 Republican, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said she would remain in her slot as Republican conference chairwoman.

But other wild cards are looming. Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling publicly thanked House colleagues for encouraging him to join the leadership race. “There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts,” he said.

Republicans close to Mr. McCarthy said the Californian has nothing to fear from Mr. Sessions, but a lot to be concerned about if Mr. Hensarling joins the race. Other potential challengers include Reps. Tom Price and Tom Graves of Georgia.

House Republicans said the longer the fights festered below the surface, the greater the chance that the battles could turn ugly and spread, sweeping in other targets, even Mr. Boehner. One senior House Republican said the faster the races could be run, the better the chance that Mr. McCarthy had to become majority leader. Otherwise, he added, “chaos could rein.”

United States government - Barack Obama - United States Congress - John Boehner - U.S. Republican Party - United States House of Representatives - Winston Churchill - Steve Scalise - Cathy McMorris Rodgers - John Fleming - Eric Cantor - Kevin McCarthy - Pete Sessions - Ted Yoho - Devin Nunes - Peter Roskam - Jeb Hensarling - Tom Price - John Graves


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