Congressional Republicans face a daunting task when they return to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday: Keep the government from defaulting on its debt and open for business, deal with the fallout from Hurricane Harvey and tackle tax reform, one of their biggest campaign promises.
Failure, some predict, could lead to Republicans losing their House majority in 2018.
It is Rep. Patrick McHenry’s job to corner, count and cajole his fractious Republican colleagues into a cohesive – or, at least, cohesive enough – voting bloc to pass legislation. The 41-year-old McHenry, in his seventh term in the House, is the acting majority whip, forced into the job when close friend Steve Scalise was seriously injured in a politically motivated shooting at a congressional baseball practice earlier this year.
“There are difficult circumstances that are thrust upon you when you’re trying to govern. When you’re trying to govern there are circumstances where you’d like to howl at the moon for rising, but it neither stops the moon from rising nor changes any type of result,” said McHenry, who represents southwest North Carolina’s 10th district.
McHenry, like other Republicans who attended town halls during their August break, faced tough questions from constituents about the lack of progress on their agenda. Some in the conservative base see “unified Republican government,” as House Speaker Paul Ryan put it, struggling to deliver on its biggest promises.
At an event in Hickory, constituent Robbie Varney asked the congressman if he would resign, given that Congress had yet to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act or begin construction on President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. McHenry deflected – and said he would not resign.
September’s challenges will give Republicans another chance to prove they’re capable of moving their agenda forward.
“There are five or six things that are kind of make-or-break,” said Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “You can even put it this way – the grade of this 115th Congress comes down to the next 60 to 90 days and the ability of us to come together and accomplish some things we promised to the American people.”
The House is scheduled to be in session for just 12 days in September. Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who represents the district to McHenry’s west in North Carolina, told Breitbart those dozen days “will decide whether we’re going to remain in power as a Republican majority or not” in 2018.
“September is an opportunity to show the American people that Congress is solving problems, getting things done and governing the country in a responsible way,” said Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican. “I rest easy that we will solve the challenges of September and the coming months because I know in every room where a decision is being made, Patrick is in that room.”
It was not always like that.
McHenry, who attended N.C. State University and graduated from Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, worked for Karl Rove on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and was a special assistant to the secretary of labor in the Bush administration in 2001.
He served one term in the North Carolina House before winning his congressional seat in 2004 less than two weeks after turning 29.
The youngest member of the state House and for his first two terms the youngest member in Congress, McHenry was a conservative bomb thrower — often relentlessly attacking Democrats, including then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and even questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace.
In 2008, McHenry posted a video he took of an enemy attack in Iraq while he was visiting troops. The Pentagon later told him he could not re-post the video.
At one point Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal from Massachusetts, repeatedly admonished McHenry for not following proper procedure on the House floor. And McHenry sparred with now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a 2011 hearing that became contentious when McHenry accused Warren of lying.
“He used to frustrate the living daylights out of me,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, told The Wall Street Journal in 2015. “He and I now have a very good relationship, but we started out pretty rocky. I used to be thinking, ‘This young kid is a pain in the neck.’”
At the time, McHenry called the House “a much more sophisticated junior high school.”
“I’m blessed that I made it through those times,” said McHenry, a married father of a 3-year-old girl who lives in Denver in Lincoln County and worked in real estate. “What changed for me was once I slowed down enough to respect the process and to respect the people that I served with in the institution. I was able to get more done when I slowed down and had respect for others. That took me three years of really making mistakes in order to figure out the better way to get things done. The key mark of proper leadership is actually learning and adapting from the mistakes you make.”
As McHenry has moved up the ranks in the House, voters in his conservative district have sent him back time and again, never with less than 57 percent of the vote – even after 2011 when Republican mapmakers added a spur reaching into the core of liberal Asheville.
He serves as vice chairman of the Financial Services Committee, a role that nets him outsized donations for his safe district. Between his campaign and his political action committee, McHenry brought in nearly $5 million during the 2016 cycle. More than $1.6 million came from the securities and investment, insurance, commercial bank and real estate industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Those contributions have led some on the left to accuse McHenry of serving his campaign contributors rather than his constituents. McHenry voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank banking regulations, attacked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen in January urging the Fed to “cease all attempts to negotiate binding standards” for American business until the Trump administration could implement its own rules.
“With the amount of support he gives to reducing regulations in the financial industry, he hasn’t been very forceful about reining in some of the abuses we’ve seen in the financial industry,” said Jeffrey Rose, chairman of the Buncombe County Democratic Party.
Betsy Well, chairwoman of the 10th District Democrats, said McHenry has done plenty to help “his little buddies in the financial district.” But, she said, “He’s done nothing for the working class.”
His fundraising haul allows him to spread money far and wide among Republicans running for the House, earning goodwill among members. McHenry gave more than $840,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which supports congressional candidates, and donated to dozens of state parties and individual candidates during the 2016 cycle, according to the Federal Elections Commission.
Others have used the deputy whip position as a springboard to bigger jobs in leadership, including former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
McHenry’s name often has been floated as a potential speaker. Just one North Carolina representative has held the post: Nathaniel Macon from 1801 to 1807. Macon’s portrait hangs in McHenry’s office.
“It’s not a position I’ve dreamed of,” McHenry insisted.
Said Yoder: “The sky’s the limit for Patrick depending on what he wants to do and where the leadership voids occur. He has the ability to step into whatever role is needed. It could be chairman of the Financial Services Committee. It could be up the leadership ladder all the way to speaker of the House. I certainly think he’s capable.”
McHenry and his caucus have plenty of work to do first: raising the debt ceiling, funding the government, providing hurricane relief to Texas, reforming the tax code, re-authorizing the National Flood Insurance Program, privatizing parts of the Federal Aviation Administration, funding infrastructure and, Republicans hope, taking another shot at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
And then there is Trump, who has feuded with many congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate, and whose incendiary tweets and bombastic comments often impede legislative progress. McHenry said he’d like to see the president use the bully pulpit to focus attention and galvanize support for legislative priorities, such as tax reform. In recent weeks, Trump has distanced himself from Congress, putting more pressure on a branch of government with a dismal 16 percent approval rating.
“I am fully committed to working with Congress – and I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress. Do you understand me?” Trump said during a speech pitching his tax reform package in Missouri last week. “I think Congress is going to make a comeback.”
At McHenry’s mid-August town halls in North Carolina, most voters blamed Congress, not Trump, for the lack of progress on implementing the president’s agenda, particularly health care. McHenry said the House had done its job on a number of issues, laying blame on the Senate for not acting fast enough (or, at all, on health care) and the media for not covering the House’s successes.
Voters expect action – one reason for the dire predictions if Republicans fail.
“There’s a group on the extreme right side, who’d be happy if they did nothing. If you come back toward the middle and the pragmatic, they want immigration reform, taxes, dealing with the debt ceiling. Otherwise they wouldn’t have put them in power,” said Chris Sinclair, a North Carolina Republican strategist. “I think they wanted new blood to come in and get things done.”
Trump threatened a government shutdown over funding for his border – a threat he made before Harvey unleashed its fury on Texas and Louisiana. McHenry said a government shutdown for any reason and defaulting on the nation’s debt obligations are not in their best interests.
To avoid either scenario and keep together a caucus divergent enough to include Meadows’ powerful House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group will require a deft touch. Though the title “whip” implies a heavy hand and use of force, the term actually comes from fox-hunting and refers to the member of the team charged with keeping dogs from straying. It requires touch and force, patience and prodding.
“You’ve got to put in the calls. You’ve got to put in the time. You’ve got to put in the understanding with people, not simply drive them on some issue, but very much get a sense of where they are and why they are where they are and that gives you a sense of where they can be,” McHenry said.
McHenry often works the House floor with a stack of index cards inside of his suit jacket pocket, rushing from corner to corner of the chamber, listening and pushing at the same time. Republicans praise McHenry’s honesty and his understanding of their concerns on legislation. During the House’s drawn-out negotiations over its repeal-and-replace of Obamacare, dozens of House members visited the White House. McHenry gave up his seat next to the president for Walker.
“It was his selflessness and willingness to let others have his featured spot, his integrity and character that stood out to me,”said Walker, who did not know McHenry before winning his seat in 2014. “He’s been doing his work and the work of Steve (Scalise) for the better part of two months and he needs to be commended for that.”
McHenry remains in regular touch with Scalise, whose condition is improving after being shot in the hip on June 14. McHenry helped Scalise win his former position as Republican Study Committee chair and his current whip post, and the Louisiana congressman rewarded McHenry by selecting him as his top deputy in 2014. The position is not elected.
The pair talk schedule and strategy, and McHenry said he often leaves his meetings with Scalise more encouraged by the injured whip than vice versa. There is no timetable for Scalise to return, leaving McHenry and other members of the whip team to handle the key coming votes.
“I’m lucky to count Patrick as both a good friend and a critical member of my team as Chief Deputy Whip. Without all he did to step up in my absence after the shooting, the Whip office would not have been able to function at a high level,” Scalise said in a statement. “I’m thankful for all he’s done and to be able to count on him every day.”
Despite his important role, McHenry is unlikely to get too much credit – or blame – from outside as the House works through its ambitious calendar in the coming weeks. For example, Trump is unlikely to name check him in a tweet, unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other high-profile Senate Republicans. His position, too, means his preferred legislation isn’t always what he ends up supporting.
“I want the most conservative outcome we can achieve. I’m a conservative. That’s what I desire in our legislative process,” McHenry said. “Get the most conservative policy you can get while still passing it.”
That’s his test each day. The stakes are higher this month.
Brian Murphy: 208.383.6089; @MurphinDC