WASHINGTON — Rep. Kevin McCarthy is a youthful-looking, silver-haired gent still finding his way as California's highest-ranking GOP lawmaker.
Following some embarrassing new smudges on his Capitol Hill won-loss record, the Republican representing Bakersfield, in California's southern Central Valley, must demonstrate anew the vote-wrangling skills demanded of him as House majority whip.
"You're always continuing to learn, week by week," McCarthy said in an interview.
Now in his third term as a congressman, and his second month as a whip, the generally cheerful, 46-year-old McCarthy ranks third in the House of Representatives leadership. The position gives him a greatly expanded staff, a Capitol office that overlooks the Supreme Court and the potential for both accolades and brickbats.
As the first lawmaker from California's Central Valley to hold the whip position since Tony Coelho cajoled House Democratic troops in the late 1980s, McCarthy is in a pivotal position. He's the man to see, for his constituents and for any Californian interested in legislation moving through the Republican-controlled House.
He's also one of the men to feel the heat when Republicans lose a House vote.
Tuesday, 26 Republicans helped defeat an extension of the so-called USA Patriot Act, which governs domestic anti-terrorism activities. Earlier in the week, House Republicans had failed to pass a GOP-backed bill retrieving U.S. money from the United Nations and had abruptly pulled a trade bill from the House floor.
One Republican lawmaker who voted against the Patriot Act extension, Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., told reporters that no member of the leadership had even contacted him prior to the vote.
"We're a work in progress," said freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a member of McCarthy's extended whip team. "I'd say it's going to come together quickly."
But with House Republicans currently commanding a 241-193 majority, as well as every procedural advantage in the book, any loss becomes noteworthy. Several in a week become a storyline.
"House GOP in disarray," a headline in The Hill newspaper proclaimed, while Politico declared: "Republican majority stumbles with votes." Both newspapers help reflect the minute-by-minute Capitol Hill consensus about who's up and who's down.
Democrats seized even more gleefully on the vote outcomes, putting Republicans where they didn't want to be: on the defensive.
"We've got 87 new members, and this is a learning process for all of us," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, said in an interview.
Dreier, a smooth political communicator, further insisted that "it's important for us to lose votes" sometimes.
Those lost votes were more complicated than might appear.
House GOP leaders brought both the Patriot Act and the U.N. funding bills to the floor under special "suspension of the rules" procedures that prohibit amendments, speed debate and require a two-thirds majority for passage.
Typically, the whip office isn't responsible either for scheduling votes or for routinely whipping members on suspension items, which are presumed to be noncontroversial. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio manage floor time.
McCarthy also stressed that the Patriot Act bill fell in large part because 36 Democrats who previously had voted for it reversed their position. Depending on one's political perspective, Republicans were either ambushed or outmaneuvered.
"I've learned that Democrats will not work with you," said McCarthy, himself a veteran of minority party tactical maneuvering.
The fundamentals of McCarthy's vote-whipping will remain the same, whatever minor adjustments may be made in the wake of the recent vote losses.
Grunt work is subcontracted out to whip team members, like Denham and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. Each is typically assigned two or three House colleagues. During other floor votes, whip team members take cards from the GOP cloakroom, approach their assigned colleagues and check the appropriate box on the card reflecting the lawmaker's intentions.
Sometimes, that's all it takes. Sometimes, it takes more.
One of McCarthy's predecessors, former Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas — now a convicted felon — fashioned a tough-as-nails reputation. McCarthy's approach seems friendlier, though push may not yet have come to shove. Outsiders, in any event, can't always know what transpires between House members.
A uniformed U.S. Capitol Police officer stands beside McCarthy's whip office, Room 107 of the Capitol. Inside, a long, narrow room with yellow walls extends toward the outer margins of the inner sanctum. Staffers sit at three desks, one after another like a gantlet.
Members stop by constantly. So do other people with congressional business to attend. On a recent afternoon, McCarthy finished a weekly lunch with his fellow California Republicans and returned to Room 107, whose outer reaches were jammed with a dozen or more visitors.
"I've got two meetings to go to," McCarthy said jovially, and moved on.
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