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Dissecting McCarthy's Whip Operation

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
McCarthy’s critics say the majority whip is not tough enough on members of the Republican conference.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy may be the most well-liked member on Capitol Hill among fellow House Republicans. And that might be part of the problem.

The California congressman’s fans are legion, and even critics concede that whipping this particular group of House Republicans might be the toughest job in politics.

But a successful House majority whip, the third-ranking member of the leadership team behind the speaker and the majority leader, has to be part confidant, part enforcer. And it’s in fulfilling the enforcement role that McCarthy falls noticeably short, according to a broad range of Republican operatives, including former GOP House members.

Of course, McCarthy faces many internal and external obstacles to herding the 218 votes needed to pass legislation on the floor, including bills once treated as routine. The majority whip is dealing with a large class of new, inexperienced conservative idealists who equate compromise with capitulation and incremental victory with defeat.

Externally, conservative advocacy groups often exert more influence over Republican members than conference leaders.

But McCarthy’s critics say there are factors within his control that might allow House Republicans to present a more united front to President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.

In addition, McCarthy lacks the attention to detail and deep knowledge of the issues that make a good whip, his critics contend. He is too concerned with maintaining good relationships to exert party discipline, and he does not delegate enough to a staff described as quite capable, they say.

“The knock on Kevin is that he has gained a reputation for talking a great game, but under-delivering,” said a former House Republican leadership aide who, like most others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Added a second GOP operative who served in a similar position: “He cares more about being liked than he does twisting arms to get the job done.”

Listening Sessions

McCarthy, in an interview with CQ Roll Call, acknowledged the difficulty the GOP leadership has had in securing votes, most recently on fiscal-cliff and debt ceiling legislation. The four-term congressman also said he continues to improve and refine his whip strategies.

But on the core criticism that he is essentially too nice and unwilling to badger members, McCarthy defended his approach, with its heavy reliance on his trademark “listening sessions.” “If people want me to be the bully — I believe, out of respect, it’s better to win the vote on the policy,” McCarthy said Thursday during a discussion in the whip’s office. “Do we push? Yeah, we push. But we’re not going to be the bully.”

He added: “We’ve never been off on our vote count.”

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