McCarthy Has Much to Prove, and Five Months to Do It

The GOP shouldn’t get too comfortable in choosing a House majority leader and whip: They’ll likely face a far more competitive field in November.

House Republican Whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), leaves a meeting of the House Republican conference June 18, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. McCarthy is the favorite to be elected to the position of House Majority Leader tomorrow to replace Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) who was defeated in primary race last week. 
National Journal
Billy House and Tim Alberta
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Billy House Tim Alberta
June 18, 2014, 5:46 p.m.

Who­ever wins Thursday’s lead­er­ship elec­tions had bet­ter en­joy their new po­s­i­tions, be­cause they could be snatched back five months from now.

Dis­il­lu­sion­ment runs deep in today’s House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence. Mem­bers across the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum are frus­trated with the policy-mak­ing pro­cess un­der Speak­er John Boehner and tired of the feud­ing between fac­tions. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s stun­ning primary loss provided an op­por­tun­ity to ad­dress both is­sues by bring­ing fresh blood in­to the lead­er­ship and press­ing something of a re­set but­ton.

But Thursday’s elec­tion is un­likely to calm the wa­ters. In fact, things might get a whole lot rock­i­er with Novem­ber’s con­fer­ence elec­tions loom­ing on the ho­ri­zon.

Con­ser­vat­ives know they’re about to come up short. Kev­in Mc­Carthy, the cur­rent ma­jor­ity whip, is poised to be­come ma­jor­ity lead­er, and Rep. Steve Scal­ise is the odds-on fa­vor­ite to re­place him as whip. While plenty of con­ser­vat­ives like Scal­ise and view him as a nice ad­di­tion, a Boehner-Mc­Carthy-Scal­ise team hardly con­sti­tutes the shake-up they were dream­ing about when Can­tor went down.

“We’re fall­ing apart. This coun­try’s fall­ing apart,” said Rep. Paul Gos­ar of Ari­zona. “We need someone with bold lead­er­ship who can en­gage co­ali­tions and lead by ex­ample.”¦ I don’t see that.”

It’s not just the frus­tra­tion of con­ser­vat­ives that en­sures a com­pet­it­ive slate of in­tra-con­fer­ence elec­tions in Novem­ber; it’s a feel­ing among many Re­pub­lic­ans that now isn’t the time to wage di­vis­ive in­tern­al cam­paigns, or demon­strate how much dis­con­tent ex­ists with­in the con­fer­ence about Mc­Carthy’s lackluster per­form­ance as whip.

Of course, wheth­er someone will step for­ward who has the polit­ic­al juice to ac­tu­ally pull off a Novem­ber up­set of ex­ist­ing lead­er­ship is a key un­known. For now, there has been little more than teas­ing from con­ser­vat­ive darlings like Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and no real will­ing­ness to com­mit.

“We could show all the warts on Kev­in Mc­Carthy, or en­gage in some con­ten­tious [lead­er­ship] elec­tion,” one House Re­pub­lic­an said. “But we don’t want to get to the point where voters will say, “˜If they can’t even elect a lead­er for them­selves, how can they lead the coun­try?’ “

In­deed, Mc­Carthy in par­tic­u­lar has a lot to prove between now and Novem­ber if he wants to keep the lead­er’s job.

He is pop­u­lar per­son­ally throughout the con­fer­ence, as il­lus­trated by the com­mit­ments he se­cured to put the ma­jor­ity lead­er race away quickly. But Mc­Carthy has a prob­lem: The sup­port he’s get­ting from plenty of mem­bers won’t last un­less they see dis­cern­ible im­prove­ment.

“You have to judge wheth­er or not you pro­mote some­body based on their past per­form­ance,” said Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona, an out­spoken con­ser­vat­ive. “And I think every mem­ber has to ask them­selves: Has he been a stel­lar whip?”

Asked to an­swer his own ques­tion, Sal­mon replied: “No, he has not been a stel­lar whip.”

Many mem­bers would not speak for at­tri­bu­tion on wheth­er Mc­Carthy’s work as whip war­rants a boost to ma­jor­ity lead­er. But there was wide­spread ac­know­ledg­ment — even among his friends — that this pro­mo­tion is based on pop­ular­ity and not job per­form­ance.

“I’ve seen situ­ations where Kev­in has said, “˜This is a self-whip. If you have a prob­lem, come see me.’ That’s just lazy,” said one House Re­pub­lic­an, speak­ing on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity. “There is no reas­on to have that em­bar­rass­ment of something com­ing to the floor without know­ing that the votes are there.”

Those in­stances have been plen­ti­ful since Re­pub­lic­ans took back the ma­jor­ity in 2010.

In the past year alone there have been sev­er­al: the de­feat of the ori­gin­al farm bill, which ap­peared to leave GOP lead­er­ship dumb­foun­ded; the last-second de­cision to pull a trans­port­a­tion and hous­ing ap­pro­pri­ations bill from the floor be­cause lead­ers sud­denly real­ized they lacked the votes to pass it; and the ini­tial de­feat on the floor of what had been billed as a bi­par­tis­an meas­ure to soften the Af­ford­able Care Act lan­guage for in­surers cov­er­ing people who work out­side of the United States. (The bill failed on a sus­pen­sion vote, but later passed when brought up un­der a dif­fer­ent rule.)

Moreover, there have been mul­tiple oc­ca­sions when Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have had to rely al­most ex­clus­ively on Demo­crat­ic votes to get bills passed — the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act, Hur­ricane Sandy re­lief, and the deal last Oc­to­ber to raise the debt ceil­ing and re­open the gov­ern­ment among them.

How much of that blame falls on Mc­Carthy is de­bat­able. But in ad­di­tion to con­cerns about his abil­it­ies of per­sua­sion, there are also ques­tions about his at­ten­tion to de­tail and grasp of the nu­ances of le­gis­la­tion.

To be fair, when Re­pub­lic­ans took back the House in 2010 Mc­Carthy was handed per­haps the toughest job in lead­er­ship: whip­ping the votes of un­pre­dict­able tea-party law­makers. He has been tasked with build­ing co­ali­tions between blocs of House Re­pub­lic­ans who not only think dif­fer­ently, but in many cases simply don’t like each oth­er. And for that reas­on, some col­leagues grade his per­form­ance on a curve.

“I think he did the best he could un­der the cir­cum­stances,” said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who co­chairs the “Tues­day Group” of mod­er­ates. “The chal­lenge for the lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing Kev­in, is that we have some mem­bers whose ca­pa­city for gov­ernance isn’t al­ways there. And they can’t get [to] “˜yes.’ That makes the en­tire lead­er­ship’s job harder — es­pe­cially that of the whip.”

Still, Mc­Carthy is part of a lead­er­ship team that many mem­bers feel has failed to unite the con­fer­ence and rally Re­pub­lic­ans around a com­mon agenda. And that, as much as any­thing he has done or not done in­di­vidu­ally, dis­qual­i­fies him for a pro­mo­tion in the eyes of some Re­pub­lic­ans.

“I like Kev­in; I think he’s a great guy,” Rep. Ted Yoho of Flor­ida said Wed­nes­day. “He said today that there was stuff he would do dif­fer­ently [if elec­ted lead­er]. But those things should have been changed already; he should have been fight­ing lead­er­ship if he dis­agreed with something.”

In a sign of their dis­ap­prov­al with the res­ults ex­pec­ted Thursday, some con­ser­vat­ives are now openly dis­cuss­ing the “Gos­ar The­ory” — named for the Ari­zona rep­res­ent­at­ive — that goes something like this: As­sum­ing Mc­Carthy wins, they will vote for cur­rent Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam to be­come whip. That way, GOP lead­er­ship will be loaded with mod­er­ate, es­tab­lish­ment-backed Re­pub­lic­ans — and con­ser­vat­ives can spend the next five months schem­ing to clean house and get rid of the en­tire team.

“If there’s go­ing to be a change, then I want change now,” Gos­ar said, em­phas­iz­ing his sup­port of Raul Lab­rador for ma­jor­ity lead­er. “But if it’s the status quo, then I want the status quo all the way down.”

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