The Majority Leader Has Lost. Long Live The Majority Leader

Shortly after Rep. Eric Cantor's surprise defeat in the Republican primary, Cantor announced his plans to step down soon from his position as House majority leader. This will leave a void in the GOP leadership, an open spot that's sure to attract plenty of interest.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The race to succeed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took an important turn today. Two of the three Republican House members who had said they were running to succeed him have now dropped out, which leaves Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California as the only candidate left, but a lot questions still up in the air. And for that, I'm joined by NPR politics editor Charlie Mahtesian. Charlie, thanks for being with us.

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's back up just a little bit. This situation was created, we'll remember, when Eric Cantor lost his primary in Virginia to Tea Party-backed challenger and then said he would step down as majority leader on July 31. Take it from there. What happens next?

MAHTESIAN: Well, we had a day filled with arm-twisting and behind-the-scenes lobbying in Capitol Hill about who was going to be the number two majority leader position and also who was going to be majority whip, which is the number three position in the hierarchy. And we had lots of candidates sort of buttonholing each other and making their case for each other. But in the end, what we saw tonight was Pete Sessions bowing in some ways to the inevitable in seeing this well-oiled operation that Kevin McCarthy had put together. And in the end of the day, he made the calculus that there just weren't going to be the votes there, and he decided to drop out

BLOCK: That's Pete Sessions, the Rules Committee chairman, congressman from Texas. The other conservative contender who had dropped out was Jeb Hensarling, and so that leaves Kevin McCarthy, as we've said, the majority whip in the House. But there has been some conservative resistance to elevating him to that majority leader position.

MAHTESIAN: Right. That's an important point to make. McCarthy, while he has broad support and while he has the backing of Eric Cantor and also influential Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, one problem is that, number one, this is a secret vote. And that will take place next week.

But there are lots of other elements that are at play here in these kinds of leadership races. We're talking about ego, ambition, ideology, even geography. And the knock on McCarthy has been that he's insufficiently conservative; in other words, that he's a little too much like Eric Cantor. And McCarthy is a Californian, which makes him a little suspect in the eyes of some Republicans. And this is a party that's rooted in the South. The South is the conservative heartland of the modern Republican Party, and that's why you saw some of the resistance and some of the candidates who were put forward come from Texas because, after all, Texas boasts the largest delegation of Republicans in the House of Representatives.

BLOCK: It sounds like McCarthy, though, has been going around and saying, look, I have locked up the votes. He's basically done what whips do. He's counted the votes, and he says he has them. Could there be other contenders emerging for that majority leader spot?

MAHTESIAN: Well, from the start, McCarthy has tried to make this kind of inevitability argument, and he's done a good job of it. But there also has been an undercurrent of talk. There's been lots of rumors about other names. No one has announced publicly, but what we hear is lots of conservatives who are sort of talking amongst themselves. And that's largely because of people who looked sort of askance at Pete Sessions and Kevin McCarthy because they had been in leadership themselves. And that's not necessarily an asset in the eyes of their colleagues these days.

BLOCK: Charlie, where is House Speaker John Boehner in all this?

MAHTESIAN: Well, the speaker isn't officially backing anyone. Boehner's primary message throughout this has been one of trying to keep the troops united and trying to keep them focused on the task at hand, the midterm elections. What he wants to do is keep the troops together and avoid having them splinter into a messy succession fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: This is a time for unity. This is a time to focus on what we all know is true - that the president's policies have failed the American people.

MAHTESIAN: Now, that's what he said today at a press conference. And it's the same message that he gave behind closed doors to Republicans yesterday. And that's one reason why the leadership vote was scheduled so quickly. A quick vote enables the party to cauterize the wound and to move on without any kind of further distraction.

BLOCK: OK, Charlie, thank you so much.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: NPR politics editor Charlie Mahtesian.

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