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At Reinstated Pen-and-Pads, McCarthy Gives Press Plenty (Updated)

UNITED STATES - JULY 23: House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., addresses the media after a meeting of House Republicans in the Capitol, July 23, 2014. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
McCarthy held his first pen-and-pad session as majority leader Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 3:20 p.m. | House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy did something Monday that hasn’t happened in years: a pen-and-pad sit-down with Capitol Hill reporters. And this was a good one.

The no-cameras news conference, which McCarthy held around a Capitol conference table with more than 35 reporters, lasted 29 minutes and represented the first majority leader pen-and-pad since former GOP leader Eric Cantor ended the practice in 2011.

“I guess you guys haven’t had these in a while, huh?” McCarthy said as he welcomed reporters back Monday.

The California Republican has said for months he’d like to reinstate the majority leader pen-and-pad — something he reaffirmed Monday — but it remains to be seen with what sort of regularity McCarthy would schedule the news conferences. If he continues to make as much news as he did Monday, he might be rethinking the practice.

Indeed, McCarthy gave reporters plenty to write about.

He revealed that he spoke to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., earlier in the morning to discuss the prospect of bringing up the senator’s Iran bill — a bill that would effectively give Congress the power to reject a nuclear deal with Iran — on the House floor. (McCarthy said he intended to put the Corker bill on the House floor if it moved out of the Senate.)

McCarthy also said he intended to bring up three measures Republicans pulled from the floor earlier this Congress: a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a border security bill that was pulled amid immigration concerns, and a No Child Left Behind rewrite that was put on hold during the Department of Homeland Security funding debacle.

When McCarthy was asked if any of those bills would come up for vote, he answered definitively. “Yes. All three of them,” he said.

But when he was asked about a lawsuit proposed by Speaker John A. Boehner to sue President Barack Obama — again — this time over the president’s executive action on immigration, McCarthy made news for his uncertainty.

“The states have the lawsuit going right now. The president’s action is not moving forward, so,” he said, content to leave it at that.

But when a reporter who was less content to leave it at that pressed on whether that lawsuit was moving forward, McCarthy signaled that the answer might be no.

“We are still, um — no answer, yes or no; we’re still looking at [it],” McCarthy said.

He continued, saying Republicans were already achieving their goal on the executive action — i.e., stopping it — so that lawsuit might be unnecessary.

Another thing that might not happen is a vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force. “I do not think there is 218 votes for what the president sent up,” McCarthy said.

“I usually don’t bring bills up unless I think they can pass. Sometimes that doesn’t come to fruition,” McCarthy added, referring to some of the stumbles House Republicans have experienced in the 114th Congress.

But McCarthy did point to the importance of Congress weighing in on war. He said he wanted the AUMF to go through the Armed Services Committee, but he didn’t commit to the AUMF getting on the floor for a vote — particularly if it’s just a doomed exercise.

“If you currently look at what the president asked for, he has greater flexibility today than if he passed his AUMF … but the world is more dangerous,” McCarthy said.

Obama is currently using 2001 and 2002 AUMFs to conduct U.S. military operations in the Middle East, and while the draft AUMF languishing in Congress would repeal the 2002 authorization and implement new restrictions, it wouldn’t touch the 2001 AUMF, essentially allowing any president to continue operations without limit.

In short, the new AUMF wouldn’t change much.

But not voting on Obama’s authorization would certainly be news, and McCarthy signaled that the draft might never get a vote. Add to that the headlines on the Corker bill, the three pieces of legislation Republicans pulled from the floor, and Boehner’s lawsuit against the president, and the majority leader gave the Capitol press corps a lot to chew on.

There is a fine art in Congress to not making news. Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who has maintained his weekly pen-and-pads with reporters, is well-versed in the craft. McCarthy is usually pretty good at it when he’s just delivering a short spiel at GOP leadership’s post-conference-meeting news conference. But fielding questions can inject uncertainty into some political messaging — which could be dangerous for McCarthy, if he intends on giving such honest and newsy answers.

Reporters are just hopeful the trend continues.

The chairwoman of the Periodical Press Gallery, Heather Rothman, said the press galleries had worked together for a long time to try to get the Republican leader to reinstate weekly pen and pads.

“Today’s effort — the first in more than three years — is a great first step,” Rothman, a Bloomberg BNA editor, said. “But I won’t be declaring victory until this is a regularly scheduled event. Hopefully Leader McCarthy and his staff saw this as a great opportunity to talk with the press. We are not a scary group.”


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