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House GOP group backs Webster over McCarthy for speaker

Erik Wasson and Billy House, Bloomberg News

The conservative U.S. House Freedom Caucus of almost 40 Republicans endorsed Representative Daniel Webster over frontrunner Kevin McCarthy to succeed Speaker John Boehner when he leaves Congress.

The 248-member House Republican caucus plans to choose a nominee tomorrow, and McCarthy, the current majority leader, is favored to win that vote. The full House, including Democrats, is set to vote for speaker on Oct. 29, and the Freedom Caucus’s backing could be pivotal in the final tally.

"Our intention is to go all the way to the floor unless changes are made" in the way the House is run, Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador of Idaho said after the meeting Wednesday.

Webster of Florida, who got 12 votes in January when Boehner was re-elected as speaker, has said he wants the House to change its processes away from what he describes as a top- down approach to legislating.

The opposition to McCarthy gained some momentum from his admitted gaffe in remarks about House Republicans’ Benghazi investigation into Hillary Clinton. McCarthy of California sought again Wednesday to walk back his assertion that the probe harmed her poll numbers, which gave Democrats an opening to argue that the inquiry is a witch hunt.

“Don’t use politics to try to change this around,” McCarthy told reporters who asked about his comment last month that the investigation caused Clinton’s poll numbers to drop.

Political ability

The flap has raised questions not only about McCarthy’s political ability and instincts, but also his communication skills — key aspects of a party leader’s job. Even if Republicans nominate McCarthy for speaker on Thursday, a decision by Freedom Caucus members or other Republicans to withhold their votes during the Oct. 29 House vote could deprive the Republican nominee of a majority.

Boehner is leaving Congress at the end of October following repeated clashes with conservative members who threatened to shut down the government over matters such as their effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The House speaker is second in line to succeed the president.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio and Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas said earlier Wednesday that the bloc’s votes on Oct. 29 will depend on how the Republican nominee handles issues in the next several weeks including a government spending bill, efforts to revive the Export-Import Bank, the need to raise the debt limit and a highway spending bill.

Many conservative Republicans oppose the Ex-Im Bank and have sought to impose policy conditions on government spending or raising the debt limit.

Jordan said leaders should demand deficit reduction as the price of a debt-ceiling increase and stand firm. “We can win this,” he said before the meeting.

Defending McCarthy

Boehner rose to McCarthy’s defense about the Benghazi remarks earlier Wednesday during their news conference in Washington. “There’s not one American who in the course of their lifetime wouldn’t rather have the opportunity to say words over again,” said Boehner of Ohio.

McCarthy said on Fox News Sept. 29 that “everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” He added, “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would’ve known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”

He was referring to a House special committee investigating the deaths of four Americans in the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, when Clinton was secretary of state. Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democrats in Congress seized on his statement as proof the House investigation is a political witch hunt, and some of McCarthy’s Republican colleagues complained that he’d helped give a new bounce to her campaign.

“Let’s be very clear, Benghazi is not political,” McCarthy said Wednesday. He said the committee “was created for one purpose and one purpose only — to find the truth on behalf of the families of four dead Americans. Period.”

‘More clear’

At another point, he acknowledged, “I could have been more clear in my description of what was going forward.” It was the latest of several attempts by McCarthy to explain his remarks.

At the same news conference, Boehner wouldn’t tip his hand on what he hopes to accomplish before he leaves Congress. A number of must-do items are looming. Among them, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said lawmakers need to raise the debt limit by early November.

“There’s no agreement on how to do this,” Boehner said. “There are discussions about how to do it, but nothing else to report at this time.”