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Robert Costa Analyzes The Coming GOP House Leadership Fight

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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HH: I begin with Robert Costa, political reporter for the Washington Post. Hello, Robert, and a Happy Easter to you.

RC: Hey, great to join you.

HH: Now Robert, it’s springtime in Washington, and no one’s doing much. The first thing I want to ask you is when do they all come back? And what do you expect them to do when they all get back there?

RC: Well, they’re all coming back from recess next Monday, and I don’t expect much to be done except perhaps jockeying for a possible leadership race, and getting ready for the midterms in terms of their political rhetoric.

HH: That’s what I want to talk to you about, is the leadership race in a second. But in terms of legislation, we are essentially done under the Murray-Ryan deal. They’ll pass the appropriations bill in a line with that. They have to do a doc fix at somewhere, but that’s it, right?

RC: That’s right, and I keep checking in with my sources every day in the House especially about immigration. And though there’s been a flurry of articles saying that Boehner may do this, or Cantor has interest in that, I very much doubt, based on my reporting, that any significant immigration legislation is going to hit the floor. If anything does, it’s going to be kind of a, it’ll be a version of the DREAM Act that Cantor’s been floating for a while, but nothing more.

HH: And so, and that will not fly through the House. That could set up a spiral of bad things. Meanwhile, Jeb Hensarling’s trying to kill Ex-Im. That’s not going to fly with the Senate, either. And so in essence, we’re done for the year. And that means politics is going to absorb everyone, especially in the House, especially in the Republican delegation. What is the state of play right now?

RC: I think the state of play has really turned in the last month. I think Boehner, to the surprise of many on the right, and to Boehner’s own crew, is that he’s solidified his position, that should the Senate go Republican, or if it doesn’t, I think Boehner’s in a position to keep the gavel. That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a challenge. I think there definitely could be one, though the Liberty Caucus, the group with Justin Amash and Raul Labrador and others, I think they’re spoiling for a fight this fall. But otherwise, I think Boehner, he’s pretty solid if he wants to stay. And I think if that happens, Cantor and McCarthy also stay, because as much as Hensarling’s getting touted by some of his friends, there’s not any active movement right now to get Jeb into the mix. But it’s still early.

HH: But if the Speaker in fact either retires, steps down or does a snap leadership change, as has happened before with Republicans, with Newt, with Livingston, with Denny Hastert, these things happen when you least expect them. Would Hensarling be in a position to challenge Eric Cantor for the leadership?

RC: I think Hensarling is better poised than anyone else right now in the House Republican Conference to cause a problem for Eric Cantor. However, Hensarling is not doing the things yet that would make him a serious challenger to the throne. He’s not whipping votes. Some of his friends, from what I can tell, are very cautiously talking openly about a possible leadership change, but they’re not even mentioning Hensarling’s name in these conversations. The Jeb boomlet, if it’s going to come, is probably going to come in the summer. It’s still almost too early for these guys to start positioning. But I think the Export Import Bank, and you’ve been covering this closely, I think this is going to be an opportunity for Cantor to really make his mark to those who are wary of him in the conference. Where does he stand? How does he fight on it? Does he cut a deal? That’s the thing that people, these are things people are watching right now inside the House, Hugh.

HH: Now the Export Import Bank, I am a big supporter of that. That helps the nation’s infrastructure, especially its big Defense infrastructure, especially the airline production business. And so it has its allies in the Senate. It’s not going anywhere. I know Chairman Hensarling doesn’t like it and would like to kill it, and that some conservatives don’t like it as crony capitalism, even though it makes money. Is that really, is that the kind of issue on which a leadership battle can have a proxy battle? Because it’s a bizarre inside the Beltway thing.

RC: It is. And I’m doubtful that…there will be Export Import debate, it’s going to give us a good insight into the state of play in the House GOP. It’s not the kind of thing that could animate Hensarling to suddenly become this alternative Speaker or alternative majority leader. Now the anxiety, though, among those who are in Hensarling’s camp, broadly speaking, they’re unhappy about the way flood insurance was handled. They’re unhappy about the Export Import Bank. They’re unhappy about the kind of message that is coming from the Speaker’s office and Cantor’s office. But the thing is, Hensarling and others like him are not really out there ever publicly speaking out against the leadership. And the reason for that is simple. They know they don’t have the votes or the political capital yet to really do anything more than cause a headache for the leadership behind the scenes.

HH: Now I am curious about some sub-groups within the House. There is one sub-group, the Defense hawks. And Buck McKeon has always been their guy, but Rob Wittman in Virginia is another one. There are a lot of them sprinkled around the country, and they’re, you’ve got the guys like Ron DeSantis and Mike Pompeo, who are very concerned about the state of the DOD. As between Cantor and Hensarling, do they line up on one side automatically? Is Cantor understood to be from Virginia and as strong on the Department of Defense guy?

RC: He is, and Hensarling, though, has, all the Texans are very much friendly with each other on Defense. But I think Cantor is doing all the right things in terms of keeping those hawks on his side. I mean, he’s bringing Paul Ryan and [Mac Thornberry] and so many other hawks right now with him on his CODEL abroad. And so Cantor right now, he’s in that process where he knows he doesn’t have a threat, but he’s making sure the hawks who really form the base for him beyond some of the younger conservatives, center-right guys, those hawks are, those are the people Cantor needs, especially if some votes start to fall off that RSC base for him.

HH: And now Paul Ryan, of course, you’ve just named probably the single most influential member of the House who is not the Speaker or the majority leader, and I’d put him above his fellow young gun, as they once called themselves, majority whip Kevin McCarthy. Is Ryan going to stay above the fray in any Hensarling-Cantor knockdown? Or is he solidly an Eric Cantor guy?

RC: Well, he’s a kingmaker. I think the Ryan question is an open one. And he’s always coy. He always plays cards close to his vest. But Hensarling is probably closest to two people politically – Phil Gramm, his political mentor in Texas, and Ryan. And Ryan has really helped Hensarling elevate himself inside the House on Budget Committee and elsewhere. Hensarling is tight with Ryan. At the same time, Ryan has always stayed close with Cantor. And so where Ryan leans, should anything ever float up, is going to be interesting. However, Ryan’s, I think, tendency more than anything is not to go with Cantor or Hensarling, but it’s to simply avoid conflict. And that’s likely to stay with Cantor, and I think Hensarling knows that.

HH: Now let’s finish by talking a little bit about Paul Ryan in 2016. I’m working on a piece for the Weekly Standard this week on how 2016 is shaping up. And I know he’s kept his option open, but realistically, he’s not running formally, is he?

RC: No, he’s not, and his PAC is nothing like Rand Paul’s PAC or Ted Cruz’ PAC and out there making endorsements and making trips. I think Ryan, the decision will come quicker than most. He has to make a decision very soon about Ways And Means, because a lot of the people on the Ways And Means Committee want to know who their next chairman’s going to be. And they want to give Kevin Brady an opportunity if Ryan’s really looking at running for president. So he’s privately going to have to start making some signals soon. Those will leak out to the press. So I think we’ll know about Ryan’s political future probably more before we know about a lot of the other 2016’ers. And my gut is Ryan stays in the House. He’s only in his 40s. He knows he can run again many times. He’s already been on a national ticket. So he has a lot of options, and I think he stays in the House for those reasons.

HH: And he’s got a brand that is pretty close to undented among all Republicans in all camps, right?

RC: That’s right, and I think, you know, one thing I talked about with a Ryan friend the other day, and this struck me as something that sounds right, is that Ryan wants some time to recover that brand, that it was slightly damaged by the 2012 experience. It of course helped in terms of his name ID, but he wants to nurture those relationships again on the right, stay the conservative warrior in terms of his political persona, and then leave his options open – 2020, 2024. And remember, I always like to use the example of Bob Dole. He was on the ticket in ’76, didn’t become the nominee until ’96. Sometimes, it’s a long race in politics.

HH: And also, it is not, given, I don’t know if you saw the Granite State poll that came out from the University of New Hampshire and WMUR. The field is shattered on the Republican side right now. There is, you could really end up with either an open convention or a rush to stop Ted Cruz, right?

RC: That’s right. I think Ryan’s wait and see mentality has a certain strategy to it, because let’s say Jeb decides not to run, business reasons, personal reasons, whatever it is, Chris Christie, damaged and decides not to run or fizzles, then…and Scott Walker, let’s say, picks up some momentum, but maybe he doesn’t really catch on. But I think there’s still going to be room for that so-called establishment slot. And we’ve seen a Jeb boomlet. We’ve seen a Christie boomlet. A Ryan one certainly could be on the horizon at some point.

HH: Robert Costa of the Washington Post, always a pleasure to talk to you in springtime. I hope you’re enjoying the cherry blossoms, Robert Costa at the Washington Post. You’ve got to read him every single day.

End of interview.

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