House Republicans chose Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California to be their new majority leader Thursday and elected Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana to succeed him as majority whip, giving conservatives a staunch advocate on the GOP leadership team.
Both men were elected handily, with each winning on the first ballot, in an election conservatives said should calm some of the discontent that had seethed over the last year and a half.
“This is a win for America because we’re going to be a more united team moving forward,” Mr. Scalise told reporters after the vote, as he joined House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, Mr. McCarthy and the rest of the Republican leadership team for the first time.
They projected an image of continuity, but some rank-and-file Republicans said they hope the vote — and Mr. Scalise’s victory in particular — is the beginning of a new approach by House leaders who have taken heat for relying on Democrats to pass debt increases and other bills opposed by most of their party.
“I think that part of his sell is going to be to whip the leadership — to whip the leader and the speaker to say if you really want this done right, you want to make my job easier and let us pass the majority with a majority [of Republicans], then you gotta help me by moving more toward a conservative position,” said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican.
The changes take place at the end of July, when current Majority Leader Eric Cantor steps down from the post. Mr. Cantor lost his Republican primary in Virginia last week, setting off a scramble for his slot and, since Mr. McCarthy won it, another race for the whip post.
The leader, which is the No. 2 job behind Mr. Boehner, is responsible for deciding which bills come to the floor, while the whip’s job ranks third in GOP seniority, responsible for building consensus and twisting arms when needed to win floor votes.
Mr. McCarthy, 49, easily turned aside a challenge from Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, to whom some conservatives had looked as an alternative after Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions, both Texans, opted not to run.
The California Republican was first elected in 2006, became Mr. Cantor’s chief deputy two years later and was chosen by his peers for the majority whip slot after the GOP won control of the House in the 2010 elections.
Mr. Scalise, 48, beat out Rep. Peter J. Roskam of Illinois, a chief deputy whip, and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman of Indiana in the contest for the House’s No. 3 spot.
Both elections were held by secret ballot. Mr. Roskam’s lieutenants had been counting on denying Mr. Scalise an outright majority on the first go-round and then winning over supporters of Mr. Stutzman, who had been running third in the race.
There have been rumblings in the past week about challenges to the new leaders in November, but Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said Thursday wasn’t the time to talk about that.
“In both cases, it’s a strong consensus of our conference,” said Mr. King, who has been one of the staunchest conservative voices on immigration in the House. “That means they’re our leaders, and that means we want to give them every opportunity to succeed, and I intend to do that.”
Mr. Scalise has served for the last year and a half as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which is the conservative caucus in the House. Still, his claim to be a conservative was hotly debated within the conference, which is a sign of just how right-leaning the House GOP has become.
“What I said [to him] was I think he’d be a great whip, but of the 80 conservatives, I think he’s the 81st,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who said he expects Mr. Scalise to be successful as whip.
“He listens to everybody. Even if he doesn’t vote the same way we do, in RSC he always listens. He gives the alternative view enough time. I think he’s gonna be a great whip,” Mr. Massie said.
Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, said Mr. Scalise consistently votes as a conservative. But he said the bigger race was for majority leader, where conservatives missed a chance.
“The whip’s role is to push the agenda of the speaker and the majority leader, so I don’t think it has as much of an impact as it might if we had a conservative member in the top two spots,” he said.
He also said Thursday’s election likely locks the leadership slate in for the foreseeable future — including after this year’s congressional elections.
“I think today was our best shot to change things. It [would] be very difficult to change positions in November,” he said.
Even though he doesn’t become leader for more than a month, Mr. McCarthy is already under pressure from immigrant-rights groups to announce he will hold a vote to legalize illegal immigrants.
“With the window for legislation quickly closing, Congressman McCarthy needs to act fast,” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers. “How and when he acts will tell us if Congressman McCarthy is serious about using his new power to fix his district’s and our nation’s biggest problems.”
Mr. McCarthy has faced regular protests from immigration advocates, who have rallied outside his California office.
But fellow Republicans said they expect him to hold the same line that GOP leaders have espoused for the last few months — that President Obama must build trust on the issue before the House will move toward a vote.
“I don’t mean to speak for him, but if I understand him correctly, he agrees that when you have a president that ignores the current immigration laws, it makes no sense to pass new immigration laws,” said Mr. Fleming.