House majority leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat primary defeat on Tuesday night is historic for several reasons that go beyond sheer election politics.
Cantor was the second-most-powerful Republican in the House, next to Speaker of the House John Boehner. Never had a sitting Senate Majority Leader lost a primary election until June 10, 2014, so once the dust settled on Tuesday night, the Washington analysis machine had to tackle several huge questions.
One question was about the impact of David Brat’s win on national elections. Brat was a Tea Party favorite taking on Cantor in Virginia, who had won six prior elections in his district. Cantor outspent Brat by a huge margin, but Brat easily beat Cantor, despite poll predictions that showed Cantor winning.
But there were two other congressional questions not directly related to the election this fall: Who would replace Cantor as Majority Leader, and how would a lame-duck Majority Leader function in the House?
We won't know the answer to the second question, since Cantor has decided to quit as Majority Leader in late July, after earlier reports indicated he had no intention of quitting.
To understand why these two other questions are important, a little history lesson is needed about the whole job description of Majority Leader and its constitutionally important role.
The Founding Fathers didn’t plan for a Majority Leader role in the House back in 1787, since the role of political parties wasn’t really considered as a big factor in life after the Constitution was ratified. It took more than 100 years for the role to be created officially.
Before 1899, different party members such as the chairs of the Ways and Means Committee, and the Appropriations Committee acted as “floor leaders,” by coordinating the activities of committees within the House and managing the order of business presented to the legislature.
Since then, and especially after the 1920s, the official term Majority Leader was used to describe the number two leader in the House’s majority party. The Majority Leader was seen as the heir apparent to the Speaker of the House, as long as that party retained power. The Majority Leader also was elected by the party caucus, or all the members of that one party in the House.
Today, Majority Leader directs the chamber's overall agenda by working to determine “when, whether, how, and in what order legislation is taken up,” to quote a Congressional Research Service report from 2006. The Majority Leader also builds coalitions to get laws passed, and acts as a prominent public spokesperson for the party.
As former Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said in 1990, the Majority Leader’s job was “making the place function correctly.”
There were numerous reports that at least four prominent House Republicans are lobbying for Cantor’s Majority Leader job and he was under pressure to quit soon.
Among the rumored candidates for Cantor’s position are Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking House GOP leader; Kevin McCarthy, the number three ranking Republican; Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and Pete Sessions of Texas.
One problem Boehner won't face is getting legislation scheduled if his Majority Leader had been a lame duck. But now, with a divided GOP caucus set to pick a new Majority Leader, Boehner could face competition for his own position as Speaker. A more conservative part of the GOP doesn’t want Boehner as the Speaker anyway, and they would want a more conservative Republican to replace Cantor as soon as possible.
For now, it is a wait-and-see game in Washington, as an unforeseen scenario plays out.
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