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Leadership Shuffle Puts Spotlight on GOP’s Up and Coming

At 39, McHenry, R-N.C., is one of the new generation of up-and-coming Republicans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
At 39, McHenry, R-N.C., is one of the new generation of up-and-coming Republicans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The leadership shuffle set off by Speaker John A. Boehner’s impending resignation has made one thing clear in the House Republican Conference: There’s a younger generation of lawmakers eager to take the reins.  

Congress is an institution that has traditionally rewarded lawmakers for biding their time and waiting their turn for a plum position or assignment. It’s particularly true in the Democratic Caucus, which generally adheres to a seniority system.  

But the Republican Conference of late has been more of a meritocracy, with committee leaders subject to term limits and more willingness to allow lawmakers to leapfrog more senior members. There’s an appreciation for tenure and time of service, of course, but the conference also rewards members with fresh ideas and energy.  

That’s in part the explanation for the rise of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, 50, who is widely considered the favorite to succeed Boehner, 65, as the top Republican.  

McCarthy made it official Monday, announcing his candidacy for the speakership in a letter to members, telling fellow Republicans, “We can’t ignore the differences that exist, but we can and must heal the divisions in our conference with work, time, and trust.”  

The House’s No. 3 Republican, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, is 49 and one of his competitors for the majority leader slot, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers is 46.  

Assuming McCarthy becomes speaker, he’ll be the youngest to hold the position in at least 20 years. (When former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., became the chamber’s top ranking Republican in 1995, he was 51.)  

And depending on how elections shake out — if Scalise or McMorris Rodgers becomes majority leader and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, 39, or Rep. Markwayne Mullin, 38, becomes whip — McCarthy could, like Boehner, be the oldest leader at the table.  

The youth movement isn’t inevitable: McCarthy could end up being younger than the lawmakers in the ranks beneath him. Rep. Peter Roskam, 54, is eyeing the majority leader slot, as is Tom Price, whose 61st birthday is on Oct. 8, possibly the day of leadership elections. Other potential whip candidates, such as Reps. Pete Sessions and Dennis A. Ross, are, respectively, 60 and almost 56. And McCarthy’s competition in the race for speaker, Daniel Webster, R-Fla., is older than Boehner: He’s 66.  

Still, the Republican leadership team is likely to represent a much different generation than their counterparts in the Democratic Caucus, where Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 75, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer is 76 and Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn is 75.  

Republicans enjoy being the younger of the two parties, a reason for bragging rights as Democrats like to tout their inroads with women and minorities. McMorris Rodgers, who has made broadening the GOP tent a pillar of her time as head of the Republican Conference, often sprinkles her talking points with statistics she’s memorized about the relative youth of the GOP as compared to the Democrats, proof that Republicans are more in touch with millennials and younger Americans looking for jobs, paying for college and saving for the future.  

“To look at the Republicans who are emerging and to compare those to the Democrats who are emerging shows a huge demographic shift,” Roskam noted Monday in a brief conversation with CQ Roll Call, “and it’s best reflected in the difference between party leadership.”  

In addition to being younger in age, House Republican-elected leaders have for some time now been less seasoned in the business of committees. None of the current members of House GOP leadership have held senior roles on congressional panels where they could familiarize themselves with the politics of policymaking. The exception, of course, is Boehner, who liked to remind people he was once the top Republican on the Education and the Workforce Committee and had practice listening, delegating and ultimately making decisions.  

It’s been a cause for griping among appropriators in particular, who have had an especially hard time getting their work accomplished given sequestration and partisanship and have felt their leaders, lacking committee experience, don’t have their backs. (On the Democratic side of the aisle, Pelosi and Hoyer both used to serve on the Appropriations Committee.)  

“They don’t really get it,” one House Republican appropriator, still licking wounds after a two-week government shutdown, told CQ Roll Call in 2013.  

Unless a surprising new candidate emerges in the next few days, the next leadership regime won’t have an appropriator in the ranks. There could, however, be a committee chairman, or even two, in Budget Chairman Price and Rules Chairman Sessions, should they follow through with their leadership bids.  

But a greener Republican leadership team could actually be perceived as something to celebrate, especially at a time when many members want a leader who isn’t set in his or her ways as are some in the older guard, and when plenty of GOP voters are fatigued by “career politicians” who cater to the “establishment” and represent “business as usual.”  

Even McCarthy stands out as a relative newcomer, someone who climbed the ranks quickly, rather than simply by outlasting everybody else: He’s only been on Capitol Hill since 2007. He did, however, get his first job in politics in 1987, working as a district director for Rep. Bill Thomas until 2002.  

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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