On paper, at least, he remains an obvious option. Just ask him. And yet Jeb Hensarling is walking away, for the second time in as many years, from an opportunity to move into the topmost echelon of House Republicans.
Over the weekend, the Dallas congressman was totally eager to be on the Great Mentioner’s lips as a central player in the latest GOP leadership upheaval, brought on by the surprise departure of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. It was the same way 15 months ago, when Eric Cantor’s even more surprising defeat in Virginia’s GOP primary meant the end of his time as majority leader.
Yet when it came time to either put up for one of those top jobs or to stand down, Hensarling demurred on Monday after “prayerful consideration,” the precise rationale he also deployed last time.
Detractors see an emerging pattern, which they consider unsurprising from a lawmaker who has always been more personally reticent and risk averse than his hardline conservative persona lets on.
Promoters warn that labeling Hensarling the Hamlet of the House would be a significant miscalculation, and they predict his patience and sense of timing may yet become his ultimate political strengths. If the leadership team that gets installed this fall is unable to quell the ideological and strategic discord within the Republican Conference, allies say, then in another 15 months Hensarling might be ideally positioned to prove that, for him, the third time’s the charm.
In the interim, he should be able to retain his considerable legislative influence as chairman of the Financial Services Committee and political influence as a spokesman for the populist right. And he may secure a place within the inner circle if his choice for majority leader, his close ally on matters of conservative orthodoxy, Tom Price of Georgia, prevails in that complicated contest.
But if the Republican infighting continues to be the main story line in the public consciousness, and then the party suffers considerable House losses in 2016, presumed next Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will inevitably shoulder much of the blame from inside the Capitol as well as from out in the country.
If McCarthy is viewed as incapable of fixing what Boehner could not — in the eyes of either the most confrontationist conservatives or the most gridlock-weary constituents — House Republicans may be making yet another call to the bullpen even before the next presidential inauguration.
This would probably represent Hensarling’s last, but best, opportunity for a top job. He’s undeniably built an ideal résumé for such a post.
In 2017, he’ll be starting his 15th year representing a solidly Republican district but will still be a few months short of his 60th birthday, so he can claim both the ample experience McCarthy lacks (the Californian would be the shortest-tenured lawmaker to be speaker since the 19th century) and a connection to the younger generation of GOP lawmakers. (The Texan’s son and daughter are still teenagers.)
By the time the 115th Congress convenes, Hensarling will have spent four years chairing his premier committee. The job guarantees unlimited intimacy with the biggest Wall Street donors and the most powerful K Street lobbyists, while also allowing him to position himself as prominently heroic among the small-government conservatives whose support remains essential for any aspiring GOP elder.
In 2011 and 2012, he was chairman of the Republican Conference, the No. 4 spot in the House majority hierarchy. Before that he was finance chairman of the party’s House campaign organization in the run-up to the 2010 takeover, and in the term before that he chaired the Republican Study Committee, which at the time represented the most conservative members of the caucus.
And his roots go three decades deep under the flourishing of today’s combative conservative movement. Hensarling spent four years in the 1980s running the Texas field office network of Sen. Phil Gramm, and he describes as his political mentor Dick Armey, another Republican Texan who was House majority leader in the 1990s into the 2000s.
Finally, his home state is guaranteed to have the biggest GOP delegation in the House for years to come, so with all those members, he’d have more than 20 percent of the votes necessary to win a leadership race.
His critics counter that Hensarling has not matched his biography with sufficient accomplishment.
He was widely criticized within the GOP for the meager and lethargic approach the conference took during his tenure to its principal role as party messenger.
He was named in 2010 to the special commission created by President Barack Obama to make recommendations for long-term deficit reduction, and the next year he was co-chairman of the so-called congressional supercommittee formed for a similar purpose. His emphatic stand against raising new revenue helped insure both panels came up empty-handed — the big consequence, in the latter case, being imposition of the sequester spending caps that continue to bedevil the Capitol.
And his signature crusade against the Export-Import Bank, which Hensarling almost singlehandedly shuttered this summer by refusing to have his panel vote on a reauthorization, will probably not bring lasting success because the bank’s charter looks to be revived as part of any year-ending budget deal. Permitting Hensarling to burnish his reputation among fellow free-market purists, critics say, was not worth inflicting so much heartburn on some of the party’s best corporate friends.
They also say Hensarling has done much less fundraising and campaign surrogacy work in the past few years than should be expected of a potential top leader. And some wonder whether his doctrinaire, humorless and occasionally misanthropic interactions with even fellow combative conservatives may have yielded a base of support as shallow as it is wide.
“I didn’t come to Washington to make friends, and I haven’t been disappointed,” he liked to say early in his career.
It’s a line he’s stopped using of late. But in the House GOP’s world of secret ballots, internecine intrigue and multifaceted relationships based on mutual convenience, it’s not yet clear whether Hensarling’s moment for achieving House supremacy is yet to come, has passed him by — or was never really there.
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