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Kevin McCarthy elected new House majority leader

California Republican's ascension marks continuity, not break, with current House leadership

WASHINGTON — House Republicans elevated two new leaders to helm their caucus Thursday afternoon, after a stunning primary defeat knocked Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., out of his post as House majority leader earlier this month.

In a closed-door meeting, where members voted by secret ballot, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was selected to be the No. 2 Republican in the House, chief lieutenant under Speaker John Boehner.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., chairman of the powerful Republican Study Committee, was selected to replace McCarthy as majority whip in a three-way race that was seen as much more competitive, but where the relative newcomer prevailed, backed by many who wanted a red state Republican among the ranks of leadership.

McCarthy’s only opponent was Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a conservative who refused to back Boehner at the beginning of the 113th Congress and mounted a long-shot candidacy at the last minute.

“America is struggling … they are looking for individuals who put people before politics,” McCarthy said in a press conference shortly after his election. “I make one promise. I will work every single day to make sure that this conference has the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen.”

GOP members ultimately decided to go with continuity in an election year.

"Given the way Cantor is going out, it's important to show a little bit of stability," Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., told The Associated Press.

Cantor announced the day after his primary defeat that he would step down from the role of majority leader July 31, although he will be serving out the remainder of his term as a member of Congress.

McCarthy is more known for his genial personal relationships with colleagues than for his policy chops or ideological fierceness. The former deli owner started his career in the California General Assembly, and eventually rose to become minority leader of that body. He was first elected to Congress in 2006 and rapidly rose through the House leadership, with both Cantor and Boehner as close allies. In 2010, he helped recruit many of the candidates who now make up the caucus. 

His ascension to majority leader is not expected to dramatically alter the House GOP’s legislative agenda.

“On the policy level, this is not going to make much difference,” said Jack Pitney, a former GOP congressional aide and a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. “Any leader has to be responsive to the rank and file, whether it’s Eric Cantor or Kevin McCarthy — they’re responding to the same set of interests and ideological concerns.”

McCarthy’s warm relationships with the 233-member conference is expected to be a helpful attribute, as the GOP leadership works to unite a fractured caucus whose dissension has been on display for the last four years.

“He focuses on the inside game, he excels at working with colleagues,” Pitney said. “He’s not known as a great policy innovator or a great orator.”

That is unwelcome news for those who are still holding out hope that the House GOP would move forward on legislative priorities long in limbo — most significantly immigration reform, which is said to have been a contributing factor to Cantor’s loss in the primary. Although McCarthy hails from a state where the issue purportedly helped doom the state Republican Party, he is not likely to be inclined to be significantly more helpful to the cause.

“This shows that the House Republican caucus is unwilling to change at this point in time,” said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, a labor union that has been highly critical of the GOP-controlled House. “Literally promoting Cantor’s closest ally in leadership, we pretty much should expect more of the same up until they feel the electoral repercussions of their extremism.”

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