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McCarthy said it's up to the Senate. Cornyn suggests it's up to the House.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
McCarthy has made the California drought a priority in Washington. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Legislation targeting arcane water rules is not typically the stuff of legacy building for high-profile political figures.

But for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, shepherding through Congress a bill aimed at easing the water shortage in his home state — while taking down some federal regulations conservatives contend contributed to the crisis — would be a personal triumph years in the making.

If he succeeds, it will be thanks in large part to the time, energy and political capital the Californian has expended on the issue, from measures that stalled in previous sessions to this current push to address the debilitating drought.

The difference this time is McCarthy is now the second-most powerful Republican in the House. And, as majority leader, he has a much bigger soapbox from which to proselytize about any issue.

“I’ve been talking about this since I’ve been whip, and even just a freshman member,” McCarthy told CQ Roll Call. “People have been talking about this, and we’ve been moving legislation about it, but it hasn’t gotten as much attention. So, part of my job is to help bring more attention. … I think I have maybe more avenues for people to listen now.”

Perhaps most significantly, he now has primary discretion over the House calendar.

“We don’t have to ask somebody else to take it to the floor now,” McCarthy laughed.

Seated in his Capitol Hill office across from a giant modern painting of California’s most famous conservative, President Ronald Reagan, McCarthy said he hoped to harness a bipartisan, bicameral coalition to rally around legislation to address the water crisis.

He holds regular meetings in his suite of offices with fellow California Republicans to discuss the emerging legislative framework, which could end up focusing on California or perhaps broadening out to other Western states. He also remains engaged with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. (Major policy disagreements led to a communications breakdown between McCarthy and California’s other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer.)

McCarthy acknowledges House lawmakers involved in the discussions could decide to move a House bill — setting up a situation where the Senate could pass a separate measure and then the two versions would be merged in a conference committee.

In that scenario, McCarthy might end up putting a bill on the floor that only has support from House Republicans; it would likely be a more conservative bill — especially since McCarthy and others in his party contend California’s water shortage has been exacerbated by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

California is in the midst of a record-setting drought, with straits so dire the state government has put mandatory water consumption restrictions into effect.

“In California, water has always been a major issue. The old saying goes, ‘whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’,’ so this has been going on for years,” McCarthy explained. “The problem is, it is such a worst-case scenario, because it’s a combination of government decisions, environmental decisions, and the lack of greater storage. So we could have been in a stronger position dealing with the drought today.”

McCarthy, who took over the GOP’s No. 2 spot last summer, is the latest in a long line of congressional leaders who’ve used the bully pulpit to focus national attention on a particular issue.

In 2011, early in his first term as speaker, John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, secured a floor vote on legislation he sponsored to restore funding to a Washington, D.C.-specific program to help local low-income children attend private and parochial schools, an interest dating back to his days as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Democrats slammed Boehner’s bill as exploitative of Congress’ jurisdiction over D.C. and reignited a larger partisan battle over school vouchers. Ultimately, Boehner secured five years of funding for scholarships.

During Nancy Pelosi’s speakership, the California Democrat didn’t hesitate to use her powerful title to advocate on behalf of local concerns, challenging the then-administrator of the EPA to justify the decision to deny her home state its request to tighten rules on greenhouse-gas emissions.

In 2014, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., championed a bill already being crafted by Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., to end federal funding for party nominating conventions and use that money instead for pediatric research grants through the National Institutes of Health. Cantor gave the bill a public face, naming the measure for a 10-year-old girl from Virginia named Gabriella Miller, who died from an inoperable brain tumor while advocating for childhood cancer research.

Conservative Republicans wanted to see more offsets in the funding, and Democrats called the bill a ploy to obscure several years of dramatic GOP cuts to NIH funding under sequester. It ultimately proved harder to oppose the legislation, with its compelling narrative, than support it, and President Barack Obama signed it into law.

Cantor’s name was never listed as the lead Republican sponsor of the bill in place of Harper, who praised his old colleague for making the bill become a reality.

“I want to give him all the credit in the world,” Harper told CQ Roll Call. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”

Like his predecessor, McCarthy said he doesn’t need to have his name on the bill he’s pushing.

In the last days of the 113th Congress, McCarthy scheduled a floor vote for an emergency California drought relief bill. It passed the House but didn’t get considered in the Senate — and it bore the name of then-freshman Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif.

“This issue, there are so many people involved. If I could help put more people together to find a solution, that’s part of my job,” McCarthy said. “I don’t care for my name to be on the title. You won’t find a bill with my name on it. But you’ll find my fingerprints all over it.”


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