House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy knows one way to remain popular with conservatives is to trash the Senate, even if it is led by Republicans. But the California Republican, the front-runner to be the next speaker, will have to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to advance mutual interests.
The two men know each other, but they aren't particularly close. That's in part because of how quickly McCarthy has moved up the House ranks — going from majority whip to majority leader to the cusp of the speakership in a little more than a year. There's also a generational gap: McConnell is 73, McCarthy is 50. McConnell has served in the Senate since 1985, two years before McCarthy started working as district director for Rep. Bill Thomas. McCarthy was elected in 2006 when Thomas retired.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., knows them both well.
"First of all, McCarthy and McConnell. Both Irishmen. So that sets the stage," Rogers said with a laugh during an interview with CQ Roll Call Wednesday.
Rogers, who worked hard to get McConnell re-elected last year, described his home-state senator as, "smart, savvy, a great chess player — he thinks 10 steps ahead. A great strategist."
And Rogers knew McCarthy in his time working for Thomas.
"To be as young as he is, and as relatively inexperienced as he is, he has quickly grabbed hold of the reins in almost unprecedented fashion," Rogers said. "He has his head screwed on right, he understands human nature, he understands the importance of individuals and their roles here. And the importance of getting our work done. He's been a tremendous supporter of appropriations and our committee and getting our bills to the floor and doing the best by them."
If so, McConnell and McCarthy could be kindred spirits.
Rogers said McCarthy was “an institutionalist,” a characterization usually reserved for older, more seasoned politicians such as McConnell; outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio; or Rogers himself.
Sen. Cory Gardner, a freshman Republican from Colorado who came over from the House, agreed with sources who said the transition would be easy.
"It'll be different because McConnell and Boehner served longer together, but I think any time you ... have two leaders who are committed to the same task, and that's not only governing here, the institution, but putting forward an optimistic vision for the people, they'll work together well," Gardner said. "It'll probably take some time for each other to get used to governing styles and how their relationship ultimately will work out, but I think it'll be a good working relationship."
But McCarthy has stepped on that sentiment a bit.
In an appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News show Tuesday, McCarthy chastised the Senate for not changing its rules so a majority could vote to advance legislation to disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal.
He also lent credence to Democratic talking points that the House Select Committee on Benghazi is a politics-driven enterprise by saying it has helped dampen Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential prospects.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping," McCarthy said. "But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen." Cue the criticism, then subsequent clarification from McCarthy's office.
Most people agree McCarthy will face the same challenges as Boehner in trying to lead an unruly conference. His red meat comments to Hannity show he's willing to mix it up and play to the hard right-wing, at least over the airwaves.
"I'm not going to give any advice to the House. Occasionally, they like to give us advice. I'm not going to give any advice to the House about how to settle their various leadership questions," McConnell said earlier Tuesday when asked about his relationship with McCarthy.
"I do know Kevin. We have a good relationship," McConnell said Tuesday. "And obviously, I and the folks behind me will be working with whatever team the House ultimately selects."
It's worth keeping an eye at the end of October. That's when McCarthy is scheduled to be on McConnell's home (bluegrass) turf, attending the Breeder's Cup Classic at Keeneland with Kentucky GOP Rep. Andy Barr, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader .
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