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Rules Chairman Running for Whip: ‘Process Is Broken’

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 29: Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Sessions speaks with reporters Tuesday as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

If you don’t remember Rules Chairman Pete Sessions’ run for majority leader in 2014, you can’t be blamed.

After Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary, Sessions was quick to jump in to the leadership race — and just as quick to jump out when he realized he didn’t have the support.

But the vocal Texas Republican told CQ Roll Call Tuesday that, this time, he’s fully committed to the race for majority whip, should Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy become speaker and Majority Whip Steve Scalise become majority leader.

Sessions has been frantically calling members since the end of last week, trying to gather as much support as possible in a crowded four-way race.

“The two-minute pitch is real successful,” Sessions said, seated in his Rayburn office. “I’ve taken four years as chairman at the [National Republican Congressional Committee]. I understand virtually every district. I understand the needs of that district and what drives [member] behavior.”

He said members know he’s open to hearing from them, that he wants them to be part of the process, that he wants their ideas to be “well-heard and vetted and taken seriously.”

According to Sessions, members simply don’t believe leadership is taking their input seriously. “We listen for five minutes and do nothing with it,” he said.

Sessions, who is an extension of leadership in his position as the Rules chairman, said, “This process is broken.”

That sentiment might explain why Sessions has been so eager to run for leadership.

“We need to be a member-driven organization like we were at the NRCC,” he said, pointing out that he established a more inclusive process at the NRCC when he was chairman during the 2010 and 2012 cycles.

And he wants to address some of the name-calling and finger-pointing among Republicans.

“We are aiming too much of our interaction against each other and less at, what I would say, is the problem, which is the Democratic Party,” Sessions said.

But as much as Democrats can serve as a common enemy for Republicans, Sessions also said making Congress more committee-driven would alleviate a lot of the problems in the GOP conference.

Sessions’ magic bullet? Regular order.

As the Rules chairman, Sessions said he can see the difference between how members feel about legislation when it comes to his panel through a strong committee process with member input, and when it doesn’t.

“What’s happened is, over and over and over, unfortunately, we get bills that have never had real hearings, and have not had a markup,” he said, getting visibly fired up for a man talking about congressional procedure.

“That’s their career,” Sessions said, punctuating every word by poking his conference table. “A member’s career is the committee they sit on.”

A lot of candidates for leadership have talked about regular order and repairing the process. But what, specifically, does that mean to Sessions?

“It means to be bottom-up processing, not top down,” he said. “And too many times, we get to the very end of a process, and we’re told what the outcome will be, what the answer is. And then we vote, and then we go sell something.”

Sessions cited his time as Rules chairman as an example of an inclusive leadership style. He said he wants to work with all of leadership to make sure members are being heard and are involved in the committee process. He said he’s dramatically increased the length of Rules hearings to give members a chance to say their two bits.

“A member who takes his time away from his family that puts up with this stuff deserves that right,” Sessions said, “which is what I’ve done at the Rules Committee.”

As for actually winning this race, the Texas Republican knows it will be tough, particularly with Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry vying for the spot. (Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Dennis A. Ross of Florida are also running.) With four in the race, Sessions thinks it will go to a second ballot — and he’s hoping to secure as much support in those later rounds as possible.

He thinks he makes it through the first ballot on the strength of his relationships with the massive 2010 class — which he helped bring in — and with the size of the 25 Republicans in the Texas delegation. (There are six GOP chairmen from Texas, including Sessions — seven if you count Bill Flores, the chairman of the roughly 170-member Republican Study Committee.)

Sessions is also courting conservatives and groups such as the House Freedom Caucus. He said he is the most conservative member running for any leadership position, and his office supplied CQ Roll Call with a document comparing the whip candidates’ ratings among various conservative scorecards. (The difference isn’t typically much, but Sessions generally does have the most conservative scores.)

As a representative from the affluent north Dallas suburbs, Sessions also points to his fundraising prowess. “I believe that this conference is beginning to understand how much money, how much time, John Boehner took doing things that traditionally people don’t like to do, and that is: raise money.”

Sessions has already committed to raising an extra $1 million for the NRCC this cycle, and he said, if he were elected majority whip, he’d focus even more on fundraising to help “defray” the costs of losing Boehner.

Throughout the interview, Sessions returned to the NRCC as a model for how Republicans and leaders should work together.

“We can win when we work well together, and the process will determine that,” he said.

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