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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.

McCarthy and his supporters also note that the whip has not lost a procedural vote or vote on a rule for floor debate, the key party-discipline votes. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said McCarthy’s whip operation is the most “inclusive” in his 22 years in Congress and works as well with members as any he’s experienced.

Strong personal relationships are critical to persuading members in this climate, added GOP lobbyist Justin McCarthy (no relation). “Just institutionally, we’re beyond putting the screws to people,” he said. “If you look at whips on both sides of the Capitol, I don’t think we’re in an era where that works.”

McCarthy’s allies say his reliance on personal relationships and his unwillingness to strong-arm members is the only workable strategy available to him. It has paid dividends on major legislation such as the free-trade bills that passed the House last year after initially encountering severe Republican resistance.

That happened, GOP lobbyists say, because McCarthy took the time to listen to members’ concerns and walk them through the benefits of supporting the legislation.

McCarthy’s predecessors regularly used earmarks and promises of campaign-fundraising assistance to flip and corral votes on politically charged legislation. Such local favors helped maintain discipline and unity.

Now that earmarks are banned, every vote is a “conscience vote,” one Republican said.

Whipping Tough Votes

Even so, McCarthy and his whip operation have encountered difficulty almost every time the House has considered major fiscal legislation that tested the Republican majority’s ability to govern and carried significant political ramifications.

Examples include the 2011 debt ceiling bill, the 2011 extension of the payroll tax holiday and, most recently, legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, which passed with more Democratic than Republican votes.

McCarthy hasn’t used tools available to him, GOP observers say, including preventing members’ bills from receiving committee hearings or blocking them from floor consideration. Such tactics could be enforced subtly, avoiding the public outcry that surrounded leadership’s decision to remove four maverick Republicans from coveted committees.

Multiple Republican sources described meetings where McCarthy has made promises to members that were not feasible from a procedural or policy perspective. They attribute this to his desire to please at all costs.

“McCarthy made rock-star status early in his career,” a House GOP aide said. “He seems to like that status instead of being the proto-typical whip — in the trenches, making the deals, switching votes.”

Reinventing the Position

A former House aide to then-Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., McCarthy was elected to the California Assembly in 2002 and two years later became its minority leader. He entered Congress in 2007 and by 2009 had been appointed chief deputy minority whip.

With no experience serving in a majority leadership position, he set about in 2011 reinventing the GOP whip operation to function in the new era of tea-party-inspired grass-roots politics, in which threats of primary challenges from the right inspire the most political fear among incumbents.

As an ex-staffer, he is used to doing things himself and has been slow in learning to delegate tasks to key aides, insiders say. James Min, the chief of staff in his personal office, is among the few staffers McCarthy trusts.

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