House Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy of California announced Monday he’s ready to seize the summit of Capitol Hill. His next climb would be even steeper – governing.
With his promotion to the top House position now seemingly all-but a formality, the 50-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., native is about to confront the same GOP dissensions that undermined current House Speaker John Boehner. McCarthy’s leadership honeymoon may be short, if he gets one at all.
“We can’t ignore the differences that exist, but we can and must heal the divisions in our conference with work, time, and trust,” McCarthy said in announcing his candidacy Monday.
The choices awaiting McCarthy extend to both short-term tactics and long-term strategy. They include whether to use a government shutdown or a debt default as bargaining leverage. And after lawmakers buy some time this week, the differences could come roaring back on McCarthy’s watch by December.
“It’ll be the exact same problem Boehner had, and that’s a badly fractured caucus,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in an interview Monday. “Those fractures remain.”
The speakership, with all its perks and pains, is becoming available because of Boehner’s decision to retire Oct. 30.
No date has yet been set for House Republicans to select their nominee, who must be approved by a majority of the 435-member House of Representatives. Republicans enjoy a 247-188 advantage over Democrats, making the eventual GOP nominee a lock unless a dissident virus breaks out.
The other announced candidate so far is Florida Republican Daniel Webster, a long shot who previously garnered only 12 votes in a challenge to Boehner.
I know when we work together under the banner of freedom and opportunity, there is little that is out of our reach.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
In a mid-afternoon e-mail sent Monday to the other 246 House Republicans, McCarthy made public what everyone assumed would happen the minute Boehner announced his resignation last Friday morning.
The only question was McCarthy’s timing. Underscoring the anticipation, and the heightened scrutiny he will receive as speaker, more than a dozen camera crews and reporters swarmed him as he delivered a routine foreign policy speech – praising Ronald Reagan, attacking Barack Obama – at a hotel two miles from the Capitol.
McCarthy has been the heir apparent ever since he took over as House majority leader in August 2014, following the surprise primary defeat of his predecessor, former Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia.
McCarthy’s supporters hope his relative youth, amiable nature and widespread connections can help him relate more effectively to the dissidents, including the man who beat Cantor, than did the 65-year-old Boehner.
“It’s a different way of pulling people together in a room,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif. “Kevin has always been very, very inclusive and team oriented. And sometimes, a new direction is what it takes to break the ice.”
Leadership candidates also traditionally promise to rule inclusively, sometimes adding new advisory positions or backing certain contenders for lower positions.
The son of a firefighter, with a congressional district that includes most of Kern and Tulare counties in California’s farm-centered southern San Joaquin Valley, McCarthy has been a relatively conventional conservative since his first House election in 2006.
When he was still in the House minority, McCarthy cast himself as a “Young Gun” rebel fighting the majority Democrats. Since then, more strident members first associated with the tea party and now banded together as the House Freedom Caucus have pushed House leaders
The hardcore conservatives can block legislation, but don't have the strength to pass their own agenda. The caucus is regarded as split between those who are willing to accept partial victories through compromise, which led to Boehner’s downfall, versus those who want more confrontation until they prevail.
Simply being resolute is insufficient to get legislation passed. Despite repeated votes and campaign commitments, for instance, congressional Republicans have failed to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"There is never going to be a majority of (uncompromising conservatives.) The party is just not built that way," said Jennifer Duffy, congressional analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
McCarthy does have one potential aid: The voting records of most House Republicans are nearly identical.
"I don't think it's as much philosophically related as it is just keeping promises. We made a lot of promises to the American people if we took the Senate we could get things accomplished," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Conservatives pinpointed the key reason for the inertia as Senate Democrats and, to some degree, Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell, though, faces his own numbers problem: It takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the Senate, and Republican control only 54 seats.