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House Republicans try to push leadership candidates to the right

By Julia Edwards and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House of Representatives Republican lawmakers pressured candidates for party leadership jobs on Wednesday to put a higher priority on conservative principles in setting the legislative agenda for the chamber.

The scramble for support could prompt House Republicans to draw harder lines on some controversial measures in the coming months, such as funding bills for highway construction, the Export-Import Bank and government agencies.

House Republicans are scheduled to vote on Thursday for majority leader and majority whip, the second- and third-ranking House leadership posts. The vote come after Representative Eric Cantor resigned as majority leader following his surprise loss to an insurgent candidate in a primary election last week.

In final pitches to Republicans, the candidates for jobs pledged a more open legislative process that gives rank-and-file members more input into the bills that come to floor votes.

"I heard from all five candidates a commitment to that, and wanting to have committees work their process as much as possible," said Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina.

Many House conservatives have complained that House Speaker John Boehner and Cantor, who managed the House's legislative agenda, brought too much critical fiscal legislation to votes that was crafted in private or that could not win the support of a majority of Republicans. That included the deal to end a government shutdown last year and an increase in the federal debt limit in March.

Too often, Boehner and Cantor have relied heavily on minority Democrats to pass such bills, lawmakers said.

The candidates vying for Cantor's job, front-runner Kevin McCarthy of California and challenger Raul Labrador of Idaho, both pledged in closed-door meetings with Republicans to insist more often on Republican majority support for legislation, according to lawmakers.

Labrador, who was first elected in the conservative Tea Party wave of 2010, said he would offer "fair representation and a good process" to lawmakers if elected majority leader.

Several lawmakers said that despite Labrador's efforts, McCarthy, widely described as "affable," likely has an insurmountable lead because of the relationships he has built up as House majority whip, a job that puts him in constant contact with members to secure votes.

The race to fill McCarthy's seat was still an open question, with Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana claiming around 100 supporters out of the 233 House Republicans, and Peter Roskam of Illinois around 90.

A third candidate, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, has attracted some support among the most conservative House Republicans but could be knocked out in an initial round of voting. Both Scalise and Roskam are vying to pick up second-round votes from his supporters to reach a majority of 117 votes.

Although Roskam serves as McCarthy's chief deputy whip, Scalise has gained traction with his argument that House leadership needs the voice of a Southern conservative from a majority Republican state.

"We're one-third of the conference, so there ought to be equitable representation," Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina said of the southern states.

(The story is refiled to correct the spelling of the names of Representatives Scalise and Roskam in paragraphs 11 and 12)

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, writing by David Lawder)

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