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Outside Influences Seek to Sway House GOP Leadership Races

Conservative activists are mobilizing to sway the House GOP leadership contests, as K Street lobbyists say they are quietly offering their own counsel and behind-the-scenes help to favored contenders.

The competing pressure on House Republicans — as they select a replacement for outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner and leaders who are vying to move up — represents the latest example of the ongoing divide within the party. The same forces that led to Boehner’s resignation continue to play out as Republican lawmakers weigh their leadership lineup.

The business interests that K Street represents want leaders who will push to renew the Export-Import Bank, invest in infrastructure spending, pursue free trade deals and a corporate tax overhaul, as well as keep the government open and avoid brinkmanship over the debt limit. Conservatives, by contrast, favor restrictions on abortion, a repeal of the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148) and generally crave big fights with President Barack Obama. 

“The grassroots is fully engaged,” said Mark Meckler, president of the conservative Citizens for Self Governance. “People are calling their congressmen and saying they don’t want the same old stuff. They’re interested in not just who’s the speaker but who’s majority leader, whip, deputy whip. They understand the influence that these positions create in Congress.”

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote an appeal to his colleagues on Monday to seek their support. “We can’t ignore the differences that exist, but we can and must heal the divisions in our conference with work, time, and trust,” McCarthy wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter as he formally declared his candidacy for speaker.

McCarthy already appears to have locked in the support of his conference to take Boehner’s gavel, but Meckler says grassroots activists, who mostly regard the California Republican as too similar to Boehner, still can make their mark.

“McCarthy’s got the hordes at the gate, and he can either decide to lead the hordes into battle against a bloated government or get taken out by the hordes, too,” Meckler said.

Counting Votes

The contests below speaker remain potentially fierce.

Former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., now a lobbyist at Squire Patton Boggs with such clients as Airbus and the Transportation Institute, said that some contenders have reached out for his thoughts. Lott has experience in these leadership fights, having served as House GOP whip in the 1980s before he was elected to the Senate in 1988. 

He said he shares his own strategy with them. “The secret to winning these is whip work,” Lott said. “I used to get my dogs in the street and get into their offices.”

Steve Pinkos, a former policy director and general counsel for McCarthy, said his one-time boss is a “people person” and that’s partly why the Californian has been successful in quickly moving up the ladder in House leadership since arriving in Congress in 2007.

“Great leaders are always in search of ideas, listening and digesting,” said Pinkos, now a partner at the lobbying firm, American Continental Group, where his recent clients have included 7-Eleven and the digital music organization SoundExchange.

People outside of Capitol Hill, Pinkos said, can help leadership contenders count votes and come up with policy ideas.

“Someone downtown may be close to so-and-so, and folks are sharing ideas; they can be a sounding board,” he said. “Everyone [downtown] has friends, knows members of Congress and can talk to them about who they think would be good and why and can advise.”

Former Rep. Bob Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who now runs the lobbying firm Wexler-Walker, said that there are limits to what outsiders can do in leadership races.

“This is really eye-to-eye contact kinds of discussions,” said Walker. “It’s probably the toughest politicking that any members will ever go through.”

But, Walker said, “you do what you can to help your friends.”

His former intern, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., serves as the House GOP’s chief deputy whip and is looking to move up to the top vote-counting job if current Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., moves to the No. 2 spot as majority leader.

Walker said because of his longstanding friendship with his one-time intern, he’d help McHenry if called upon.

“If somebody is having trouble getting senior members, they might say, ‘Could you call him and put in a good word?’” Walker said.

Insider Connections

Such insider connections, conservative grassroots activists say, can be lost on their side of the cause.

“Some of the people the grassroots want to see in leadership are not good at playing that game,” Meckler said. “That’s what the grassroots can do: put outside pressure on the leadership races, so it’s not entirely an inside game. That’s a new thing.”

Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said it was already clear by Boehner’s resignation that conservative organizations can influence the leadership lineup. Her group launched a “Fire the Speaker” website two years ago, she noted.

“This is something we’ve systematically been working for three years, even when people mocked us and said we were wasting our time,” Martin said. “We may be told the exact same thing as they’re looking to vote for new leaders. But clearly, we see our efforts make a difference.”

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