WASHINGTON — The three Republicans running to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House met behind closed doors Tuesday evening with conservative members to make their pitches.
The candidates — Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Florida Rep. Daniel Webster — separately addressed the group of about 50 to 60 conservative lawmakers at the Capitol Hill Club near the House office buildings.
“We’re still an underdog,” Chaffetz told reporters as he made his way into the meeting with his wife at his side. “I get that. But we’re going to give it a go.”
“There are a lot of members who feel disaffected, and I think they need to see some serious process reform,” he added. “If we can get the process better, than I think we can get more buy in to the end product.”
The private session was hosted by the Tea Party Caucus, the House Freedom Caucus, the Conservative Opportunity Society and the House Liberty Caucus.
Leaving the question session with the conservatives, Webster, the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, said he sold the conservatives on the idea of implementing a “principled-based, not power-based system.”
“It means that there’s a pyramid of power with a few people at the top of that pyramid making all the decisions,” he said. “Principled-based pushes down the pyramid of power, spreads out the base, so every member can be effective. I did it in Florida. I can do it again.”
McCarthy, the current majority leader who is believed to have commitments of support from a large number of House members, appeared before the group but entered and exited a side door and did not take questions from reporters. A member of the Boehner leadership team that has clashed with many of the conservatives at Tuesday’s meeting, he has promised to work to unite the fractured conference if elected.
The GOP conference is set to nominate the party’s nominee for speaker Thursday.
But even if McCarthy wins that closed-door party vote, it’s possible he could lose the public floor vote later Oct. 29 if a large enough group of conservatives boycotts and refuses to support him. To become speaker, a candidate must win a majority, which will likely be 218 votes.
As the conservatives departed Tuesday’s meeting, it was clear there is not yet a consensus pick for speaker. Some vowed to support Webster, while others said they were still undecided.
“I think each of the candidates helped themselves,” said Iowa Rep. Steve King. “And I’m glad that we have three candidates and it’s a competitive race for speaker. We got a couple of days to pull together some kind of consensus.”
“This is an important decision,” Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold said. “You got to listen to what everybody’s got to say. And this was a great opportunity to get the conservatives together and get the questions we as conservatives have answered by the candidates. And I have to say, they all did a good job.”
Asked who he supports, Farenthold said, “it’s something that I’m praying on, a lot of other members are praying on.”
North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, who supports Webster, told reporters that he questioned McCarthy during the session about how he thought one of the leader’s staffers recently acted unprofessionally to one of his aides.
“I had a bill to name a courthouse for a friend of mine, a Republican, who died suddenly of a heart attack at 55,” Jones recalled. “And all the North Carolina delegation supported this bill. And yet, it got out of committee and nobody would put it on the floor. I resented that. And one of his staffers had a conversation with my staff that was not very congenial.”
Added Jones: “You’re judged by your staff. Your staff speaks volumes as to who you are and how you operate.”
McCarthy’s recent gaffe — describing the positive political affects of the House Benghazi committee in hurting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, despite the committee’s leaders arguing since its formation that it’s apolitical — came up during his appearance.
South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the Benghazi committee, didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting but happened to be eating dinner in the same building and walked by reporters staking out the session.
Asked about McCarthy’s comments, which come as the committee is preparing for Clinton’s Oct. 22 testimony, Gowdy said: “When somebody apologizes, you forgive them. And hope people focus on your actions, and not the words of other people who frankly aren’t on the committee. He apologized, I accepted it, it’s my job to do a good job on the 22nd.”