By Peter Schroeder - 06/22/14 11:00 AM EDT
Now comes the hard part for newly crowned House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
McCarthy easily won his election to become the House’s No. 2 Republican. Leading a divided conference months ahead of more leadership elections will be tougher.
Making a mark
McCarthy’s ascension came as a surprise to everyone in Congress — not because he’s not a good fit for the job, but because he earned it following a frantic weeklong race to replace Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who suffered a stunning primary loss.
Party leaders are usually picked at the beginning of a new Congress, giving them a clear runway to show their colleagues what they can do. McCarthy doesn’t have the luxury of a clear runway.
Instead, he steps into the job just as lawmakers are getting ready to shift into full-time campaign mode.
Some members are confident McCarthy will get plenty of leeway given the unusual circumstances, but with outspoken conservatives still agitating for a larger seat at the table, he may need to show his chops in short order to avoid challengers when the next Congress is sworn in.
McCarthy’s challenger, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), told reporters Friday that McCarthy will be given some time to prove himself.
“The good luck that he has is he has four months to prepare to be a good majority leader,” he said. “He has time now.”
Handling the business/conservative rift
One of the few items left on the House’s short legislative slate will be a tricky balancing act for McCarthy.
The Export-Import Bank’s charter, which dates back to FDR and provides government guarantees on loans to help corporations do business abroad, is set to expire at the end of September. Major business groups are pushing hard for an extension, and conservatives in and out of Congress are pushing just as hard to kill it.
Among those leading the charge to let it die is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee that oversees the bank and a possible contender for Speaker or majority leader later this year who demurred on challenging McCarthy.
Hensarling has blasted the bank as “corporate cronyism” and vowed to defeat it.
Cantor previously played a key role in winning an extension of the charter, but had said he would defer this time to Hensarling, at least for the time being. McCarthy repeated that message when he was campaigning to replace Cantor, but as the deadline nears he’ll face significant pressure from the business community and its backers to get the extension done.
Working with Scalise
Conservatives are hoping that Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-La.) election as McCarthy’s replacement as majority whip will shake up the leadership team.
Scalise formerly led the conservative Republican Study Committee, and conservatives who backed him hope his presence will push the House leadership to the right.
That could put Scalise in conflict with McCarthy, whose job is to determine what legislation actually reaches the floor. How they work together will be a key factor in determining how smooth or rocky the next five months are for House Republicans.
“When you have a shuffle of this nature, this late in the process, we all need to work a little bit harder to help these guys as they adjust to these roles,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “I think the conference will rise to the task.”
Winning in November
The leadership shake-up overshadowed the fact that House Republicans remain likely to retain their majority this fall or even pick up seats.
It’s not McCarthy’s job to ensure that happens, and he’ll get plenty of the blame if the GOP underperforms.
“Any time elections don’t go well, everybody in leadership’s job is in peril,” said Cole. “That’s just the truth, whether it’s fair or not.”
If Republicans put together a better-than-expected performance at the polls, and their colleagues across the Capitol take control of the Senate, it could improve McCarthy’s chances or retaining his position when the House picks its leaders after the miderms.
“If we have a strong election in November, I think that would certainly help the current leadership team,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).
Avoiding Cantor’s fate
Almost no one anticipated trouble for Cantor in his GOP primary, including Cantor himself. The message many lawmakers took away from that his unexpected defeat was to not forget about the voters back home as they climb the power structure in Washington.
McCarthy clearly is taking that message to heart. Shortly after he won his new job, he was up with an ad back in his Bakersfield district intended to show his constituents he hadn’t lost touch.
“I’m in Congress to serve you, first and foremost,” he said before recounting how he lived his whole life there, married his high-school sweetheart, and still lives in his first home with his children.
“Being elected majority leader was an honor, but the highest honor was serving our community and you,” he added.
On Friday, McCarthy underlined that message to conservatives in Washington. He noted that he still sleeps in his office when in town, and bluntly said, “I don’t want to become Washington.”