By Richard Cowan and Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers are scrambling to identify the party's future leaders after the shock primary election defeat of Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, by an upstart candidate from the Tea Party movement.
House Majority Leader Cantor was defeated on Tuesday in a primary race in his Virginia district by a political rookie backed by the conservative Tea Party, which will see the result as an opportunity to increase its influence in Congress.
In his campaign against Cantor, college economics professor David Brat accused Cantor of being too willing to compromise with Democrats on immigration and budget issues and of not fighting hard enough against President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law known as Obamacare.
That, despite Cantor's role in staging more than 40 votes in the House to repeal all or parts of Obamacare over the last few years.
"My concern is that the Ted Cruz supporters, the Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning," Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, told MSNBC's Morning Joe on Wednesday, referring to the two influential conservative senators who could run for president in 2016.
It could take months of political jockeying, however, before House Republicans settle on their next leadership team. That timetable could accelerate if Cantor were to step down from his majority leader job before year’s end but there were no indications yet that he would.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner has indicated in the past that he would like to continue in his post at least through 2016. Cantor had been seen by many as an eventual successor to Boehner.
Brat beat Cantor, a seven-term congressman with close ties to the financial industry, despite being vastly outspent.
Cantor's loss could embolden conservative lawmakers who oppose compromise with Obama's Democrats on issues from budget and tax policy to immigration reform.
"Thank God there's no debt ceiling vote coming up. Thank God there's no opportunity to shut the government down over the next several months, because I think we could get bogged down in those type of issues," King said, predicting the death of a variety of legislative proposals.
Cruz, a Texas Republican and favorite of the Tea Party, pushed a strategy to deny funding to Obama's healthcare plan that resulted in a 16-day government shutdown. Many conservative lawmakers look to Cruz and Paul, Kentucky's junior senator, for guidance.
Shortly after Tuesday's election results were announced, Cantor canceled a speech he was scheduled to deliver on Wednesday to the National Association of Manufacturers. The president of the association, Jay Timmons, praised Cantor as "a voice of civility and reason in the House Republican caucus."
Democratic Senator Chris Coons spoke in Cantor's place and lamented on Cantor's defeat to the more conservative Brat.
"The lack of clarity about the path forward out of that primary I think does set us back in some ways in terms of encouraging those who are willing to have a conversation about reaching across the aisle," Coons, a Delaware senator, said.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Grant McCool)