With a series of early wins under his belt, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is brushing off questions about his laid-back style, insisting a gentler approach to bringing his Conference together will pay better dividends than an iron fist.
In an interview with Roll Call, the California Republican said critics need look no further than last week’s vote on the continuing resolution. Despite a threatened revolt by House conservatives, McCarthy and his fellow leaders avoided a public meltdown, and mass defections didn’t materialize.
Entering the vote, “we knew every single vote and where it went. ... It played out fine,” McCarthy said. And while he did lose 54 Republican votes — a number that would have been unheard of during the tenure of Whips such as former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — McCarthy stood by his relationship-based whip method.
“I build trust with [Members], so I know where they’re coming from, I understand their district, I understand their concerns. I think it just opens up the ability, the freedom to be very honest and communicate where they feel they are and where they feel their angst,” McCarthy explained.
Under McCarthy’s system, Members are finding themselves whipped significantly less than in the past.
For instance, leaders whipped only a handful of amendments to the long-term CR, a process that took some 90 hours of floor debate and scores of votes on Republican and Democratic amendments.
Republicans aren’t whipping suspension votes — which require a significantly higher vote threshold than bills considered under a rule — despite the fact that they might lose.
Pointing to the collapse of a USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization last month that caught leadership off guard, McCarthy said it alerted top Republicans to the reality that suspensions will be political votes and that whipping would be counterproductive.
“It woke us all up,” McCarthy said. “Suspensions are going to just be a political play all the time. And if you’re whipping suspensions, you’re just not going to be in a successful position. So we’re not even going to do it. ... Suspensions are just going to be however they go.”
Even when he is actively whipping, McCarthy said, he avoids the kind of arm-twisting that other Whips have used. “None of [these meetings] are heated, none of them are a yelling type of argument,” he said.
So far, at least, McCarthy has gotten high marks from his colleagues.
“Good guy, great Irish man. He’s from Cork, so we’re kind of neighbors,” Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) quipped when asked how he thought McCarthy has done in the first few months as Whip.
“The biggest part of being the Whip is to make sure you stay in touch with the different parts of the caucus,” Rep. Steven LaTourette said. “He’s stayed in touch with me personally, and the Tuesday Group,” the moderate GOP organization in the House.
The Ohio Republican also praised McCarthy’s reliance on relationships rather than using firm discipline to bring Members into line.
“Unlike previous Whips who’ve been heavy-handed ... he’s been very receptive” to people’s concerns, LaTourette added. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais described McCarthy as being very “responsive” to questions during the debate.
“He has been eager to meet with us and talk and answer any questions we might have,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Just the other day, I had a question that I didn’t feel was completely answered, called his office and Kevin came right over, sat down for 20 minutes, took all the time that I needed.”
Privately, lawmakers said that despite an easygoing demeanor, McCarthy’s relationship with Members, particularly in the freshmen class, has been key to tamping down challenges to leadership.
One Republican pointed to McCarthy’s speech during last week’s weekly Conference meeting as a turning point on the short-term CR vote, arguing that he pulled Members back from insisting on an approach that could have forced a government shutdown.
McCarthy downplayed his role in squashing the nascent rebellion, arguing that it was more a debate over tactics than philosophy.
“This wasn’t a fight of principles. No one was disagreeing on principles. It was a discussion of tactics. Its kind of like doing MapQuest, and one person picked to take the freeway route and one person picked to take all streets,” he said.
“They thought it’s a better tactic to show them we’re serious about where we’re going.”
McCarthy acknowledged that the less restrictive leadership style he, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) have pursued has caused some frustration among his colleagues, particularly those who want them to use their power to force through GOP priorities.
But McCarthy insisted it is best to “follow the rules” and avoid the excesses that have marked previous House regimes.
“That’s an ugly way to win. We’re not going to win that way. And so, that’s a different way, and that builds frustration with Members. But they respect it in the end. And I think it will help us in the long term in one getting better legislation but also in our leadership,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.