WASHINGTON — Stunned and divided, House Republicans sought a way forward Tuesday as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pledged to bring them together after Speaker John Boehner's sudden resignation.
The five-term California Republican moved aggressively to lock up support to move into Congress' top job, second in line to the presidency. He faced little serious competition, though the same hardline conservatives who forced Boehner out command enough votes to complicate McCarthy's ascent, even without fielding a candidate of their own.
"I know what's going on across the country, and I'm concerned about what we hear," McCarthy told reporters. "We want to make sure that we're closer to the people, that they feel this is their government, they're in charge and we serve them.
"Now, that's not easy, and it won't change overnight. But that's our mission."
McCarthy spoke as the contest to replace him as majority leader turned volatile, with some conservatives announcing they wanted to draft Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the special panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks, and Hillary Clinton.
Gowdy took himself out of the running late in the day, stressing that he doesn't want to give up his responsibility as Benghazi committee chairman. "I've never run for any leadership job," he said.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia already are competing fiercely for the No. 2 job. But the short-lived movement to draft Gowdy showed discontent among some conservative lawmakers with their choices as they seek a new direction for the House.
Amid the jockeying, House Republicans met behind closed doors Tuesday evening for an unusual members-only meeting. Lawmakers said it was a wide-ranging discussion on how they move forward from Boehner's stunning announcement Friday that he will step down at the end of October, rather than face a tea party-driven floor vote to depose him.
Lawmakers aired frustration at their inability to satisfy fed-up voters who want aggressive action against President Barack Obama and the Democrats, and who blame GOP leaders when Senate Democrats and the president himself foil GOP plans. Many are embittered after years where Congress has lurched from crisis to crisis, often driven by a small group of tea party lawmakers, shutting down the government in a failed attempt to end Obama's health law and repeatedly getting the bare minimum done at the last possible minute.
The GOP enjoys the biggest House majority in decades and control of the Senate, yet lawmakers feel they have little to point to. And there's no unanimity on a solution — if a solution exists — though the GOP's White House hopes may depend on one. More chances for gridlock and shutdowns loom later this year.
"There needs to be a major therapy session and a lot of dialogue and a lot of putting down our knives and just having a really great heart-to-heart and coming to grips with some very, very, tough things," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., one of the rebels. Like other lawmakers, he complained of feeling excluded and unable to represent the voters who elected him.
Other, establishment-aligned lawmakers complained Republicans have fed voter frustration by making unrealistic promises about what can be accomplished under divided government, even with Senate control. They called for a more honest dialogue with voters.
"Are we going to keep lying? Are we going to tell the American people, or try to fool them, into believing that we can unilaterally repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, bring down the president's executive orders?" asked Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. "Or are we going to be serious, are we going to lead, are we going to be honest? This is the question here."
McCarthy and the candidates for lower-rung jobs have been addressing such questions head-on in a leadership race that's featured unusually public soul-searching about the state of House Republicans.
In a statement seeking his colleagues' support as majority leader, Scalise wrote: "It's time to unite behind a strategy that lets us make the case for our conservative governing vision and empowers you to drive the public-policy narrative in your own district."
Price, Scalise's leading opponent, released a letter saying: "The hurdles that inevitably lay ahead will require effective and capable leaders. It will require new thinking and a change from the status quo. And it must advance the cause of a smaller, more limited, more accountable government by allowing everyone's voice to be included."
Some hardline conservatives questioned whether McCarthy, who's been endorsed by Boehner, would offer real change. Asked how he would be different, McCarthy joked Tuesday that "I won't be as tanned" as the famously orange-hued Boehner. But he also moved to ingratiate himself to conservatives, declaring on CNN that Sen. Ted Cruz is "healthy for this party." Boehner has called Cruz a "jackass." Texas' Cruz is a presidential candidate and tea party favorite.
Boehner's decision to step down averted immediate crisis, as stopgap legislation to keep the government running is expected to clear Congress ahead of the Wednesday midnight deadline. Despite conservatives' demands, the bill will not cut off money for Planned Parenthood following the release of videos focused on the group's practice of providing fetal tissues for research.
The bill merely extends the government funding deadline until Dec. 11, when another shutdown showdown will loom.