By Molly K. Hooper - 05/20/11 09:54 AM EDT
House Republican leaders this year have distanced themselves from the strong-arm tactics used by Tom DeLay in the 1990s, but critics say the GOP needs a modern-day Hammer to drive home its agenda.
Republican defections on key votes, coupled with Democratic victories on the floor earlier this year, have some in the GOP conference worried about the fate of high-profile legislation. House Republican leaders this summer are looking to move a slew of spending bills as well as a package deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
The 2011 whip operation, some contend, needs a harder edge.
A veteran Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity told The Hill that Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) needs to use more stick, less carrot.
“You can’t talk tough to somebody and there be no consequences, so [McCarthy] has to figure out — and people have been talking to him that people need to be made an example of in some way.” Some House Republican members have raised similar concerns about Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is well-liked and respected. But some have pointed out he is not a disciplinarian and does not like engaging in confrontational conversations.
Members say that DeLay and former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did not shy away from punishing members who broke ranks.
In 2004, then-Transportation and Treasury Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) tried to rescind Amtrak earmarks, sparking a heated fight with then-Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) and other GOP legislators. Istook’s subcommittee was reorganized in the next Congress, stripping him of his gavel and “cardinal” status.
Other House Republicans who lost their chairmanships in the DeLay era included Rep. Chris Smith (N.J.) and former Rep. Joel Hefley (Colo.).
During now-Sen. Roy Blunt’s tenure as House majority whip, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) lasted less than one day on the Missouri Republican’s deputy whip team.
Blunt fired Westmoreland for breaking the cardinal rule of chosen vote-counters: He defected on a procedural motion.
While Blunt and DeLay never would publicly accept losing on the floor (in 2003, they famously kept a Medicare vote open for three hours), Boehner’s team has said that from time to time, Democrats will triumph.
Supporters of Boehner contend that the DeLay era is over. Longtime members grew tired of the Texan’s tactics, something Boehner witnessed repeatedly as he climbed back up the leadership hierarchy.
Sources close to Blunt and DeLay explained that the two lawmakers were proactive at heeding the concerns of fence-sitting lawmakers. For example, Blunt visited at least 100 districts per election cycle in order to get to know his colleagues.
“The more you know about the member’s district, the more you can push back when they tell you this is a vote they can’t take,” a source close to Blunt said, adding that the Show-Me State lawmaker has relayed that advice to McCarthy’s staff.
Blunt told The Hill that McCarthy “is really working hard to be in members’ districts and understand the reality that they have to deal with.”
McCarthy has been in constant communication with his conference, meeting with members as well as interacting socially with them, such as playing in games of pickup basketball.
And the affable McCarthy has at times been stern with members.
In March, McCarthy challenged Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) during a closed-door conference meeting. After Pence argued against a short-term spending bill that called for billions in spending reductions, McCarthy said he was voting for $6 billion in cuts and Pence wasn’t.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) earlier this year told The Hill that he was under a lot of pressure from the whip operation to vote for another stopgap measure. Campbell ended up voting no.
A GOP leadership aide said, “Kevin McCarthy’s whipping style is inclusive and uses member education as a tool to promote understanding of the legislation coming to the House floor. The vote on the budget is a great example of how effective this approach can be. An educated conference usually leads to a unified conference.” Only four Republicans voted against the fiscal 2012 budget plan, a far lower number than most had anticipated.
McCarthy, who has been whip for less than six months, has some tough acts to follow, as well as some new challenges. The last whip was now-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who served as Blunt’s deputy and earned respect in GOP circles by unifying the entire House GOP conference against the Obama administration’s stimulus and healthcare reform bills.
In an interview, DeLay said, “You’ve got to know the issue better than the member does ... I just knew them, their district and the issue well enough to debate them and knock down their opposition.”
The retired Texas lawmaker, awaiting appeal on a money-laundering conviction, said he doesn’t know McCarthy well enough to comment on the Californian’s current whip operation.
DeLay said that quality staff is a key factor in an effective whip team. McCarthy hired DeLay’s former chief of staff, Tim Berry, to run his shop.
“As a leader, and I never did, if you force a member to do something against his district and what he believes, then you won’t last as a leader or as a chairman or have any sort of leadership position for very long,” DeLay said.
That being said, a source close to both DeLay and Blunt said the former House members cracked the whip when necessary, with support from their fellow leaders.
“At some point you just have to make it clear that there’s going to be an opening on a committee that you want to be on — I’m going to see that you don’t get on it,” the source told The Hill.