By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A high-ranking California lawmaker, Kevin McCarthy, emerged on Thursday as the leading contender in the Republican contest to fill one of the top positions in the U.S. Congress, but some of his colleagues complained he was not conservative enough and urged others to jump into the race.
House Majority Whip McCarthy has been asking other lawmakers to support his bid to become House of Representatives majority leader to succeed Eric Cantor, who is stepping down after his shock primary election defeat to a little-known challenger from the populist Tea Party movement.
Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who chairs the House Rules Committee, has also said he would run in the party's June 19 election for the number two post in the House.
McCarthy, the No. 3 ranking House Republican who is in charge of lining up support for legislation, grabbed early momentum over Sessions by picking up some endorsements. One was from Cantor, who will serve out the rest of his term through the end of the year.
Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who attended a meeting of Republicans from southern states on Thursday, said he would back McCarthy because of his leadership experience even though he believes a Republican from a southern state should hold one of the party's top House positions.
"I just think that Kevin will do a great job as a leader. He’s kind of battle-tested, being in that Whip's position and that’s what it’s going to take to get us through. He’s a good guy," Westmoreland told reporters.
Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, also a McCarthy supporter, said the Californian was personally popular. "He tends to be a unifier not a divider," Cole said.
But both McCarthy and Sessions are seen as mainstream conservatives and allies of House Speaker John Boehner, leading to some grumbling from the party's right flank that leaders were moving too quickly to keep one of their candidates from running an effective campaign.
"We don’t have the lineup of conservative, rule-of-law candidates in place. So we’re asking for a delay in this vote, so that there’s time for the conference to come to its senses and evaluate all the opportunities we have going forward,” said Representative Steve King of Iowa, a Tea Party favorite.
The election represents a high-wire act for Boehner. He would like to see a new team installed that will help him move legislation and avoid fiscal crises, but one that also will make Tea Party supporters in Congress feel they have a voice.
If House conservatives remain angry over the fight to fill Cantor's post, they could challenge Boehner's bid to remain as speaker later this year.
The Ohio Republican survived a challenge from the right after the 2012 congressional elections.
Boehner said he could work with "whoever gets elected."
A lineup of contenders also emerged for McCarthy's post as majority whip. Lawmakers said Representatives Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois have all begun lobbying colleagues for the whip's job. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas opted out of the race on Thursday.
King and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, another Tea Party favorite, both said they would not back any candidate who favored a path to citizenship - which they term "amnesty" - for immigrants who entered the United States illegally.
In Cantor's Virginia district campaign, Tea Party challenger David Brat, a political novice and economics professor, had portrayed Cantor as too soft on immigration reform and succeeded in toppling the House majority leader.
Idaho Representative Raul Labrador, prominent among conservatives willing to defy the Republican establishment, was getting support from other members to jump into the majority leader race, according to a source familiar with his thinking.
Labrador abandoned bipartisan House talks on immigration last year and has said he does not think this year is the right time for the issue either.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Annika McGinnis and Julia Edwards; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Caren Bohan and Grant McCool)