House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., smiled in front of a national audience and voiced full confidence that his House Republicans needed just a “couple more” votes in order to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I know we’ll get this done,” McCarthy declared March 23 on CNN.
Less than 24 hours later, McCarthy and his fellow House of Representatives GOP leaders suffered a stunning defeat. They didn’t get it done. The votes weren’t there.
The abrupt collapse of the Republicans’ hastily revised Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill was an extraordinary blow for a House GOP leadership that had promised for seven years to repeal the health care law.
It was a particularly bitter setback for McCarthy, who had relentlessly championed the bill despite hundreds of protesters at his district office in Bakersfield.
The legislative collapse represents the most high-profile defeat in what has been a mixed record for McCarthy since the 52-year-old conservative California native ascended into GOP leadership.
McCarthy’s future is now at a crossroads, part of a chastened leadership team and faced with a fractured caucus that defies corralling.
This tension between McCarthy’s broad expressions of can-do optimism and the bleaker vote-wrangling reality has marked other chapters of his leadership life. He’s had some strong successes as well as some notable failures. Some of his losses, such as health care, reflect far larger divisions within his party. Others stem from his own missteps.
Now McCarthy and his 236 fellow House Republicans will have to show whether they’ve learned lessons. They face an onslaught of other challenges, including overhauling the nation’s tax system, boosting its infrastructure and simply keeping the government from shutting down later this month.
And then there’s still Obamacare.
“We promised that we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” McCarthy said at a news conference last week, days after the bill to do so had collapsed for lack of support.
Even his fellow Republicans doubt that will happen, at least anytime soon.
“I truly believe health care has moved on, and won’t be dealt with again until 2019, if then,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of President Donald Trump’s most ardent congressional supporters, said Thursday. The House GOP mood, he said, was marked more by frustration and disappointment.
McCarthy declined an interview request over the past week.
First elected to the House in 2006, he rose quickly to power within the Republican leadership largely because of his ability to raise money and recruit candidates. He ascended to majority leader, the second-ranking position in the House, in 2014.
He has a collegial way about him, a skill at Republican branding and an aptitude for raising and distributing money in support of his fellow Republicans. Fueled by major contributions from financial and real estate interests, his leadership political action committee has spread more than $3.1 million among GOP candidates in the last two House election cycles.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Orange County, California, said McCarthy’s personality helped ease tension in the fractured Republican caucus as conservative and moderate factions battled over Obamacare strategy.
“I think he is in a good position to try to find some common ground moving forward because he did not mistreat people,” Rohrabacher said.
Translating people skills into legislative accomplishments is another matter, and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., McCarthy is not known for his immersion in policy details. Facing skepticism from some colleagues, he dropped out of the race in 2015 to replace the retiring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
His success in helping to recruit tea-party-backed candidates helped Republicans win the majority, but many tea party conservatives defied GOP leadership once elected because of their refusal to make compromises.
During his prior service as the House majority whip, in charge of securing votes, McCarthy seemed to misread the level of Republican support at times. A major farm bill failed on the floor of the House, and the leadership struggled to get a majority of Republicans to support bills.
Democrats were needed to pass key legislation, including relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and the last-minute New Year’s 2013 “fiscal cliff” vote to prevent automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and other federal agencies.
McCarthy praised a congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi terror attack as succeeding in sinking Democrat Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers; comments that, while largely accurate, undercut GOP efforts to present the probe as a serious nonpartisan effort.
As the new Congress began in January, McCarthy fumbled the details as he spoke to reporters about an early Republican plan to gut the independent congressional ethics office. Within minutes after the news conference, the plan was dropped at McCarthy’s urging.
In March he sent contradictory signals about whether he thought Attorney General Jeff Sessions needed to recuse himself from the investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. McCarthy, asked on MSNBC whether Sessions should step aside from the probe, talked about the need for trust in the investigation and said, “I think it would easier from that standpoint, yes.”
McCarthy was soon on Fox News saying he was not calling for Sessions to recuse himself.
“McCarthy works, and he works especially at networking and building personal bonds with his colleagues, and that’s a big strength,” said Norman Ornstein, congressional analyst at Washington’s center-right American Enterprise Institute. “But, you know, he’s not a substantive guy.”’
Still, after years of maneuvering and with the help of a detail-oriented staff, McCarthy last year ushered to completion a significant California water bill that had long been sought by the state’s farmers. The effort succeeded, in part, because he was able to strike a deal with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein while he and his allies kept persisting in the House.
“It resulted in legislation,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., adding that the water bill “absolutely” counted as a McCarthy success.
Other work, behind the scenes, underscores McCarthy’s continued ability to influence the course of legislation even if the final bill falls short.
Several members, for instance, voiced concerns that older Americans with lower incomes would pay higher insurance premiums under the GOP health care bill. McCarthy and others in the leadership worked with conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., as well as moderates to increase the tax credit for older Americans. It was enough to secure some vote commitments, though not enough to put the bill over the top.
“They’ve managed to do a few things where they can all unite, mostly in blowing up existing regulations, but legislatively we don’t have much and I don’t see great prospects down the road,” Ornstein said.
Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which clashed with the GOP leadership over the Obamacare replacement bill, aren’t blaming McCarthy for the breakdown.
“He has a tough job,” said Rep. David Brat, R-Va.
McCarthy now faces his next round of critical leadership tests in dealing with complicated issues such as overhauling the tax code and finding agreement on a spending package to avert an April 28 government shutdown. Much to the dismay of conservatives, he’s going to have to again rely on Democrats.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said he was looking to McCarthy to start engaging him in negotiations.
“We talk. We respect one another,” Hoyer said of McCarthy. “The Republicans are going to need us; that’s the history.”