House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy appears in position to be the next majority leader, as Rep. Pete Sessions dropped out of the running late Thursday after Mr. McCarthy locked up strong support from top Republicans.
A day after Rep. Eric Cantor announced he would cede the leader’s post, following his Tuesday primary election defeat to a tea party challenger, rank-and-file Republicans had debated whether either Mr. McCarthy or Mr. Sessions were conservative enough to lead the GOP.
In a statement Thursday evening, Mr. Sessions said he would not run so as to avoid a divisive intra-party fight that he could not win.
“Today, it became obvious to me that the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party. At this critical time, we must remain unified as a Republican Conference,” he said.
But some lawmakers complained about the snap-timing of the election to replace Mr. Cantor, which will take place next Thursday, leaving little time for a conservative challenger to emerge.
“Unfortunately, while both current candidates benefit from the hasty time frame prescribed by leadership, neither opposes amnesty legislation being brought to the floor of the House,” Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said Thursday even before Mr. Sessions had dropped out.
Both Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Sessions worked the House floor trying to buttonhole colleagues in an attempt to shore up support. Mr. Sessions talked up Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina at one point as Mr. McCarthy exchanged handshakes with colleagues, including Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.
“Maybe Kevin, having been the No. 3 guy, was on the outs sometimes [on] the policy discussions, maybe he’ll be more inclusive, maybe he’ll decide now that he’s No. 2 he likes that sort of exclusive position — I don’t know,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “But I would think that generally speaking there might be more open discussion about policy.”
Mr. Cantor’s election defeat set off an instant scramble ahead of next Thursday’s vote. But less than 24 hours later, the race had crystalized.
Some conservatives had been hoping for Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas to contend for majority leader, but he bowed out of the race Thursday morning. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, who has an eye on becoming the next Budget Committee chairman, also decided against a run.
As the current whip, Mr. McCarthy’s job is to build support for GOP priorities and to count the votes. Mr. Sessions, meanwhile, is the Rules Committee chairman.
The whip’s slot now appears as if it will be open, and three members have announced plans to run: Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, and Peter Roskam of Illinois.