McCarthy Profile: Genial Party Loyalist Rose Quickly
Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation at the end of October makes his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the likeliest candidate to inherit the gavel. Boehner even offered his unqualified endorsement, saying the five-term lawmaker would be an “excellent” speaker.
McCarthy did not immediately make his intentions known. “Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead and always do what is best for the American people,” he said in a statement.
McCarthy’s rapid rise in the GOP leadership strengthens his candidacy, though he isn’t a shoo-in. For one thing, he’s not a member of the Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of House conservatives, chaired by potential rival Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who succeeded McCarthy as House Majority Whip.
Conservatives could also strike an alliance with McCarthy in which he takes the speakership and one of their own, such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio or Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, becomes majority leader.
Kevin Brady, a conservative Texas Republican with a record of building consensus, was one of the first to publicly throw his support behind McCarthy. “I have supported Kevin in his efforts throughout his leadership races, proud to be both on his whip team and a member of his advisory group. I think he’d make a strong conservative consensus speaker,” Brady said.
Were McCarthy to become speaker, his voting record suggests that, like his predecessor, he values voting the party line. For his entire House career, McCarthy’s annual party unity score, based on a calculation of votes that split the majority of Republicans and Democrats, has never dropped below the GOP average. His lifetime score of 96.5 percent is four points higher than the party average. Similarly, Boehner’s average score for the decade preceding his speakership (2000-10) was 97.8 percent, six points higher than the party average over that period.
In September, with a battle of government spending looming, McCarthy led the GOP caucus through a month where they seemed preoccupied with everything but a potential shutdown, including a visit by Pope Francis. When the pontiff, in his address to Congress, called for the U.S. to take action on climate change, McCarthy stayed seated as many fellow lawmakers stood to applaud.
The House instead spent much of the past month expressing their disapproval of President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and making various attempts to strip federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Two weeks before the government would run out of money, McCarthy announced a pair of bills that would have restricted funding to Planned Parenthood, the object of an undercover video sting many Republicans say showed the group profits from the sale of fetal tissue for medical research.
“Defunding Planned Parenthood and saving newborns is the right thing to do, and the House is going to do it,” he said.
McCarthy, however, faced the challenge of balancing the demands of his conservative caucus with the need to help other congressional leaders avert a shutdown — and to make sure that the Republican party won’t be blamed.
McCarthy went on the offensive accusing Democrats on Twitter and elsewhere of being obstructionist. “Though Republicans have done everything possible to keep the appropriations process open and move through regular order,” he said in June, “Democrats are committed to obstruction, even to the point of forcing a shutdown.”
The easygoing McCarthy has only been majority leader since June 2014, when he was elected to replace Eric Cantor after Cantor’s humiliating loss in a Virginia primary to economics professor Dave Brat, who was backed by local tea party groups. Cantor quit Congress in August 2014.
McCarthy has impressed many around him. The Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas says McCarthy’s “high emotional intelligence” helped a sprawling caucus become “flatter” and “more communicative.”
McCarthy relied on close relationships forged on the stump and in private meetings, and took a Boehner-like pragmatic approach to settling disputes between his party’s factions, prodding deals in committees and winning floor votes, rather than taking strong policy stands of his own, which was Cantor’s style.
That led to his meteoric rise. Boehner became the majority leader after 15 years in the House. Cantor took 10 years. McCarthy landed the job after seven and a half, defeating Labrador on the first ballot.
He scored a key victory for Republicans in March by helping cement a deal that increased the Pentagon’s regular budget despite the tight restrictions of sequestration — a lot more money was added for combat operations, which are exempt from sequestration, with the understanding that any cash not needed for war would be dumped into the regular budget.
McCarthy had emerged as a secret weapon of sorts for Republicans as they worked to regain their footing after the 2008 elections, when the party suffered a new loss of 21 House seats. Young, telegenic and devoted to the cause, he gained favor with the right people. After only one term, he was appointed chief deputy whip for the 111th Congress (2009-10), charged with helping Cantor (then the minority whip) count votes.
He also worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he had success recruiting candidates for 2010. When Republicans retook the House that year, Cantor became the majority leader and McCarthy was elected whip. It was not bad for a politician who celebrated had his first election to Congress in 2006 at an In-N-Out Burger shop.
Along the way to the top, McCarthy spent and raised serious money for his party, according to his home-state newspaper the Los Angeles Times. “In the two years leading up to last fall’s election, McCarthy, through his reelection campaign and leadership PAC, spent $140,000 on steakhouses alone. He paid $426,000 to companies that charter private jets, covering 46 trips. And he raised at least $10.5 million for his own and party political committees. That spending and fundraising have fueled one of the fastest rises to power in congressional history,” the newspaper wrote in June.
The challenge McCarthy faces remains the same: getting the Republican conference to pull in harness. The majority that McCarthy helped create includes anti-establishment conservatives trying to push the party into more confrontations with the White House. Those tensions were on display in July when ultra-conservatives attempted to undo earlier action to ban Confederate flag imagery from national cemeteries. The group successfully attached such an amendment to the 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill during a late night session in the House. The move was widely ridiculed and condemned, forcing GOP leaders to pull the entire bill from the floor in an embarrassing retreat. The episode also forced lawmakers to stop all other appropriations work GOP leaders had hoped to finish before the August recess.
This continued previous revolts. Hard-line conservatives blocked the progress of long-term reauthorizations of farm and surface transportation programs in the 112th Congress (2011-12), then openly revolted against Boehner during deficit reduction negotiations in December 2012. Plans to block the implementation of the 2010 health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) resulted in a two-week government shutdown in October 2013, which was widely seen as a public relations disaster for Republicans.
McCarthy, known as laid back, has been seen conducting meetings with his feet propped on a desk. As whip, he cultivated relationships with the Class of 2010, opening his Capitol office as a hangout between votes. That class inspired “Young Guns,” the 2010 book he co-wrote with Cantor and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Ways and Means Committee chairman.
McCarthy has often avoided forceful expression of his own ideological convictions — even close friends have wondered aloud about where his views lie within the Republican spectrum. Shortly after he was elected majority leader, he surprised some by endorsing a favorite conservative cause to let the Export-Import Bank charter expire June 30, with the argument that the private sector can handle its functions of financing exports. McCarthy also denounced what he called a ‘bad’ nuclear deal with Iran this year.
McCarthy comes from humble roots. His mother was a dental assistant who then stayed home to raise her three children. His father was a full-time firefighter and a furniture mover.
He supported President Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984, which meant going against the strong pro-union sentiment in his family. His father belonged to the firefighters union, and his grandfather was a railroad worker.
McCarthy won election to the California Assembly in 2002, and became the minority leader halfway through his first term. He was included in California’s “Big 5,” an informal decision-making group that also counted as a member former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When California Republican Bill Thomas, then-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced in 2006 that he would retire, McCarthy – who had worked for Thomas – won his seat. He defeated two lesser-known candidates in the GOP primary and breezing past Democrat Sharon M. Beery in the general election with 71 percent of the vote. He has had only one Democratic opponent since then and won that 2014 race with 75 percent of the vote.