Rep. Kevin McCarthy took the stage on June 20 at his first public address since being elected majority leader looking to reintroduce himself to the public.
Focusing on his Everyman roots in Bakersfield, Calif., he told a gathering of social conservatives that he paid his way though college with a mixture of lottery luck and entrepreneurship, eventually being elected to the very congressional office from which he was once turned down for an internship.
“You’ve got to understand where I come from. I’m the grandson of a cattle rancher, the son of a firefighter, and I had the opportunity to run for majority leader. Only in America do we have this,” he told the audience at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, to applause. “I’m not an attorney. I don’t have poli-sci degree.” The California Republican is not a slick lawyer like Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican who will vacate the majority leader position at the end of July. But in order to govern, and to fill the shoes of the man he has been unexpectedly called upon to replace, McCarthy will have to not just reintroduce himself, but to a certain extent reinvent himself as well.
After July 31, the fourth-term lawmaker will take over as majority leader, becoming the least tenured member ever to hold the position amid a Congress that the most recent Gallup poll found to be the most unpopular ever .
For the past several years, Cantor has been the driving policy and messaging force behind the House Republican Conference. Where Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio is laissez faire, Cantor has tried, albeit often unsuccessfully, to engage the conference in rewriting health care policy, reaching out to under-served populations and fundraising.
Cantor latched on to pet issues, such as charter schools, pediatric disease research funding and, though it may have become the death knell of his congressional career, allowing some children of immigrants to become citizens.
McCarthy has his own political gifts. His jovial West Coast openness has endeared him to many in the conference. But members and aides concede that he has not proved himself as a policy thinker — though they believe he can step into that role. His favorite issues, those close to him say, include high technology, entrepreneurship and energy — which may include a focus on energy independence and drilling on federal lands.
But until he can develop his own strategy to set the tone for the conference, committee chairmen are likely to carry the load, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
“It’s going to take him a little bit of time … to establish his own style,” Cole said on last week. “Kevin, if anything, is more open, accessible, draws more people into the process. But it probably empowers committee chairmen a little bit more, certainly at least in the short term.”
McCarthy’s team has already started the transition to his new role, and there is talk of retaining some of Cantor’s top policy staff in order to maintain some continuity.
As usual, there is no shortage of pressing issues. Before McCarthy takes on his new role, Congress must confront a looming shortfall in highway funding. Leaders must shepherd a slate of appropriations bills, or a stopgap spending measure, through the chamber and a conference report. The Export-Import Bank authorization is nearing expiration before the end of the year.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., struck a deal with Cantor last year to authorize the Ex-Im Bank, and told CQ Roll Call he plans to meet with McCarthy this week, in part to build a relationship where there is none.
“I’m hoping that we can get Export-Import Bank passed,” Hoyer said, noting that Cantor had pledged to allow Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who is no fan of the program, more latitude in rolling it back.
McCarthy, who does not enjoy speaking to throngs of press, will be called upon to set the messaging agenda. Cantor’s team had been planning a three-state bus tour for next month, during which the top four elected Republican leaders would travel to Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, speaking about health care, energy and other issues. That has fallen by the wayside, and it remains to be seen how McCarthy will try to sell the public on Republican policies.
Republicans are also counting on McCarthy for fundraising help. They are losing Cantor, one of their most prolific fundraisers, as the National Republican Congressional Committee trails its Democratic counterpart by $12 million. Members close to the organization want leadership to exert more pressure on under-performing members, particularly committee chairmen, to chip in.
“We have a serious problem now that has to be addressed, and that is a $12 million hole at the NRCC, which with Eric leaving now, that’s a huge hole that’s got to be filled,” said Rep. Devin Nunes of California, an NRCC regional chairman.
Elsewhere in leadership, the election of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana to replace McCarthy as whip has quieted , if only temporarily, the fusillade of conservative attacks on leadership.
“I want to give them a chance to see what happens,” said Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who just last week was breathing fire about a full-on leadership coup. “People wanted to at least see a change, to see a new face. There is a new face, and Kevin … identifies with people. Let’s see what he can do.”
Even Scalise, however, will have to prove that he can follow through on his promise to conservatives to be their voice at the leadership table, while also whipping votes for leaders on often-controversial legislation.
“I think that part of his sell is to whip the leadership, to whip the leader and speaker,” said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, who supported Scalise in the whip race. “He would be able to sit at the leadership table and say, ‘If you really want this to pass and you want to get a majority of the majority and you want to get something we can be proud of you need to take a look at the more conservative perspective on this.’ ”