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How Patrick McHenry went from partisan ‘attack dog’ to holding the fate of the House in his hands

Speaker pro tempore evolved over nearly two decades in Congress, earning Democrats’ respect

Rep. Patrick McHenry, seen here in July, is suddenly back in the limelight.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, seen here in July, is suddenly back in the limelight. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When he first came to Congress, Patrick McHenry was the kind of Republican rabble-rouser who might get compared to a rabid fox — a wily politician ready to snap at any Democrat unfortunate enough to get between him and a camera. 

Over the course of nearly two decades in Washington, though, McHenry matured into the sort of lawmaker who eschewed the spotlight for the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where legislative deals could be made. And so, when an actual rabid fox bit him last year, McHenry didn’t try to use it to garner sympathy or raise his profile. Instead, he confessed it only months after the fact, during a more than 10-hour Financial Services Committee markup, to illustrate his desire to work with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., on legislation to limit the inclusion of medical debt on credit reports after he received debt collection notices on the rabies shots. 

“I’m running in front of the Capitol right by the Native American Museum, 5:30 in the morning, and I’m wearing, well, running gear … I wish to be honest, running tights,” McHenry said. “This thing catches me in the corner of my eye, and I kind of run a little faster — obviously not fast enough — and it nips me in the calf. … I yelled another F-word, not ‘fox,’ and so there I am, screaming … at 5:30 in the morning.”

McHenry said he told his wife, who didn’t believe him, but refrained from going public with the story after seeing the attention Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., received after suffering a similar ordeal

“I didn’t want to be in the press, and I didn’t want my Wikipedia page to say, ‘And he got bitten by a rabid fox,’” he said. 

Today, McHenry’s Wikipedia page describes how he became speaker pro tempore of the House after Kevin McCarthy’s historic dethroning Tuesday at the hands of eight disgruntled Republican backbenchers and another 208 willing Democratic accomplices. 

It’s an uncomfortable and unexpected position for McHenry, who was once seen as a future GOP speaker but in recent years stepped away from the limelight and pressures of party leadership to focus on lawmaking. McHenry will now oversee the selection of the next speaker, a process that took 15 attempts to pick McCarthy just nine months ago, while the next deadline to keep the federal government open rapidly approaches. It’s an unenviable task, but one that members from both parties say the diminutive North Carolinian is well equipped to handle.

McHenry assumed his new position pursuant to a continuity-of-government rules change after the Sept. 11 attacks, which requires speakers to submit a secret list of who should act in their place if, for whatever reason, they no longer could. 

Some congressional experts say McHenry’s powers in the role should encompass many of a normal speaker’s, other than occupying the second spot in the line of presidential succession, for example. Speaking at an AEI event Wednesday, Brookings Institution scholar Molly Reynolds said she worried that McHenry’s caution so far as speaker pro tem might set the wrong precedent. “In the kind of situation that this rule originally anticipated, we would want the person acting as speaker pro tem to have more expansive powers than the speaker has so far exercised,” she said.

McHenry has signaled that he plans to do little more as pro tem than oversee the transition to the next speaker, telling reporters he will next call the House to session for the leadership vote. But if that process takes longer than the week he’s proposed, then McHenry might be forced to do more with the speaker’s gavel than simply hand it over to the next guy. 

Promises made  

Over his years as the top Republican on the Financial Services Committee, first as ranking member starting in 2019 and then as its chairman since January, McHenry developed a reputation as a respectful and trustworthy negotiator — someone Democrats can haggle honestly with over legislation without fear of suddenly reneging on promises.

“Every promise he’s made, he’s kept, and I think that that matters,” said Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., who qualified his remarks as the impression of a freshman on the panel. 

That stands in stark contrast to McCarthy, whom Democrats saw as a Procrustean counterparty increasingly beholden to the same contingent of performative conservatives that ultimately ended his speakership.

So far, McHenry has shown no indication that he wants to stay in his new position permanently, remaining mum as other Republicans have moved to make their own bids for the speakership. The bow tie-sporting glad-hander is generally admired among the GOP rank and file. “I like Patrick,” said Texas Republican Pete Sessions, who sits on Financial Services with McHenry. 

But he doesn’t expect him to run for speaker. “It’s kind of hard to ask a guy with three little kids to want their wife and kids to live that way,” Sessions said.

First elected in 2004, McHenry came to Washington as a 29-year-old striver who quickly developed a reputation as a camera-hungry “GOP attack dog-in-training.” But his partisan mien mellowed as he moved up the GOP’s ranks and grew into a policy expert. Speaking to Politico in 2017, former Speaker John Boehner predicted, “McHenry’s going to be the speaker one day.”

A former GOP chief deputy whip and longtime ally of McCarthy’s, McHenry spurned a leadership position last year, opting instead for the Financial Services gavel. At the time, McHenry said that raising the debt ceiling and passing appropriations this year would be the two biggest fights in this Congress. “I’m much more optimistic about the opportunities we have in Financial Services than the role that I could play in House GOP leadership,” he said at a Punchbowl News event.

‘Honest broker’

Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., who sits on Financial Services and arrived in Congress the same year as McHenry, has had a front-row seat to his transformation. 

“When he first arrived, he was seen as a bomb thrower and someone who was looking for a fight,” Cleaver said in an interview. “He was the Freedom Caucus before there was a Freedom Caucus. Today, I read him as a person who really would like to work with others, who would like to work with Democrats.”

McHenry’s policy stances didn’t change, but his approach softened with age, Cleaver said. 

“He didn’t change his conservative, deeply conservative positions at all… but those kinds of differences can be present, as long as respect is also present,” he said.  “Unless you’re just hellbent on being disruptive, after a while you want the House to work. You spend 19 years in a place, you do have a lot invested, and you don’t want it to be for naught.”

Speaking with reporters before McCarthy’s ouster Tuesday, Sean Casten, D-Ill., commended how McHenry ran Financial Services. “Mr. McHenry has done a good job of putting the institution first,” Casten said. “Yes, there’s a difference in priorities… [but] it’s certainly been more constructive than Rules, Oversight, and some of the other committees.”

Casten credited McHenry with moving past performative issues to focus on where the two parties might disagree but could still work together. “We’ve not had a lot of the crazies. I mean, we had all the silliness around wokeism and ESG, which is behind us,” he said.

Another Democrat on the panel, Ritchie Torres of New York, echoed that sentiment on Wednesday. “When people ask me whether there’s a Republican I respect, the first name I often mention is Patrick McHenry,” Torres said. “Even though I disagree with Patrick frequently and intensely on most policy questions, I have real respect for him as a legislator. I find him to be principled and pragmatic. I find him to be an honest broker.”

McHenry won the praise of some Democrats on the committee back in July when a handful of them crossed party lines to support a Republican proposal for regulating cryptocurrency markets despite party leaders urging against it. One of those backers, Jim Himes of Connecticut, singled out McHenry’s willingness to work across the aisle. “I will just observe that with my office, the chairman and others have spent hundreds of hours and I have requested any number of changes to this bill,” Himes said over the summer. “Each and every one of those changes, the chairman has said yes to, and as a consequence, it’s a better bill.”

During his tenure as chairman, McHenry has frequently pursued bipartisan solutions without shying away from pushing top policy priorities on party-line votes, advancing bills that would curb financial regulators, expand access to investments and capital, and limit environmental, social and governance investing.

None of that is to say that McHenry is a moderate — he still fashions himself as a “movement conservative” — or someone afraid to throw political haymakers. Progressives are still angry that he called Elizabeth Warren, not yet a senator, a liar during a 2011 oversight hearing on the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. McHenry drew Financial Services Democrats’ ire earlier this year when he dismantled the panel’s subcommittee on diversity and inclusion.  

And his first decision as acting speaker angered Democrats further: booting Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer from their extra office spaces in the Capitol, which former speakers and majority leaders have traditionally been allowed to keep. 

Speaking on a Baker Hostetler webinar at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hoyer described McHenry as “a real pain in the neck,” when he first came to Congress, but “Patrick and I now have a wonderful relationship.”

Expressing his hope that Congress could continue to overcome polarization to respond to the pandemic, Hoyer pointed to McHenry’s own evolution from partisan scrapper to a statesman over the years. “Patrick McHenry is a perfect example. He came to Congress with that sort of zeal and a ‘I want to fight with these Democrats,’ [attitude]” Hoyer said. “As he’s stayed in the Congress, it’s not that he’s become any less Republican or any less a strong proponent of the policies that he promotes, but he became convinced — as hopefully all of our members of government [are] — [that] the people sent us there to get a work done to get a job done, on behalf of themselves, their kids, their community, and their country.”

Nickel, who like Himes and Torres voted for the GOP-led cryptocurrency bill, thinks McHenry will be a steady hand on the tiller navigating the House through the stormy process of picking a new speaker. 

“​​I think you can expect someone who is going to follow the rules and do a good job, keeping the House in order until we can choose a new speaker,” he said. “He’s certainly a conservative, but he’s someone that is focused on getting things done, which I think is important, especially right now.”

Michael Macagnone and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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