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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.”

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.

His whipping strategy is bottom up, counting on member participation as legislation is being written and amended to build support.

That doesn’t mesh well with the top-down style that Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and the leadership team executed on some controversial fiscal bills. That often put McCarthy in a position of trying to whip a bill that members opposed from the outset.

The lack of unity among party leaders has also been problematic. One Republican who previously served in the House said McCarthy’s vote against the final fiscal-cliff deal sent the wrong message. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., also voted “no,” as did several committee chairmen. Boehner voted “yes.”

“If the top three leaders don’t agree, why do I have to be on the team?” is the message this sends to the rank and file, said a second former member.

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