WASHINGTON — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is assuring House Republicans he can bring them together, even as emboldened conservatives maneuver to yank their next leaders to the right in the wake of Speaker John Boehner's sudden resignation.
As House lawmakers prepare to meet Tuesday evening to discuss their path forward, McCarthy is moving aggressively to lock up support to succeed Boehner. In morning TV interviews and at a GOP leadership news conference, he spoke of uniting House Republicans with "a new culture" that listens to all voices and yet has "the courage to lead in the end."
"We want to make sure that we're closer to the people. That they feel this is their government, that they're in charge and we serve them," McCarthy told reporters at a news conference. "Now that's not easy and won't change overnight, but that's our mission."
Asked about his policy priorities Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," McCarthy spoke not of health care or abortion, issues that have left the party divided over strategy, but instead of fixing fundamentals of government: passing a six-year highway bill and embarking on a sweeping reorganization of federal agencies to eliminate duplication.
"I believe in fighting, but I believe in winning," McCarthy told CBS' "This Morning," explaining why, although he opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood, he doesn't want to shut the government down over the issue.
Asked how he was different from Boehner, McCarthy joked at the news conference that he "won't be as tan."
The battle to replace McCarthy as majority leader has quickly grown vigorous between two candidates: the No. 3 House Republican, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and the Budget Committee chairman, Tom Price of Georgia. A third, House GOP Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, opted out of the contest late Monday.
McCarthy said he would not single one out for his support.
Scalise released a letter to fellow lawmakers Tuesday appealing for their support and declaring: "It's time to unite behind a strategy that lets us make the case for our conservative governing vision, and empowers you to drive the public policy narrative in your own district."
A wild card emerged Tuesday morning as several Republicans said they supported Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the special panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks, for majority leader. There was no official word from Gowdy on whether he was interested in the post.
Amid the maneuvering, a question hanging over the Capitol is what the House Freedom Caucus will do. The band of 30 or so hardline conservatives who drove Boehner out by threatening a floor vote on his speakership does not have the strength to field a candidate of its own. But they hope to exact commitments on hewing to conservative principles as Congress faces major battles on keeping the government running and avoiding a federal default — right in the middle of a presidential campaign.
"It doesn't work just to change the leaders, you've got to actually talk about changing policy, you've got to talk about principles," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., one of the rebels. Of McCarthy he said: "He's got to have a plan to restore trust, not just with us but with our voters."
Some of the more establishment-minded Republicans are disgusted with the Freedom Caucus crowd over their role in pushing Boehner out. They argue such behavior could hurt the party's presidential chances and are warning against any further such antics when McCarthy's election for speaker is held, once Boehner leaves Congress at the end of next month.
"If you've just threatened one speaker with this and then you turn around before he's even done anything and threaten the next speaker with this, it's pretty clear to everyone else in the conference the speaker's not the problem — you're the problem," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a Boehner ally.
McCarthy, a Californian in his fifth term, has been endorsed by Boehner and is the heavy favorite. But he faces an opponent in Rep. Daniel Webster, a former speaker of the House in Florida who unsuccessfully challenged Boehner at the beginning of this year and has drawn some conservative support.
Boehner's decision to step down rather than face a nearly unprecedented floor vote to depose him averted immediate crisis, as stop-gap legislation to keep the government running is expected to pass the House and Senate ahead of the Wednesday midnight deadline. The bill easily cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate Monday, setting it up for final passage. Despite conservatives' demands, the bill will not cut off money for Planned Parenthood in the wake of videos focused on the group's practice of providing fetal tissues for research.
But the bill merely extends the government funding deadline until Dec. 11, when another shutdown showdown will loom.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.