McCarthy presents himself as Mr. Right

Incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has moved swiftly to bolster his conservative credentials after his election last week, aligning himself with the GOP’s right flank on a pair of key issues.

McCarthy’s decision to publicly oppose reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and his embrace of a border-security-first immigration policy won praise from conservatives who had pushed for the Republican leadership to move rightward following the surprise primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

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“That’s huge,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a conservative who said that when McCarthy asked for his support in the leadership race last week, he urged him to quickly make his conservative views clear to the public.

McCarthy is hoping to become Rep. John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) heir apparent as Speaker, while some conservatives are already looking to the fall as their next opportunity to fully overhaul the party’s leadership team.

The question of renewing the Export-Import Bank has become something of a litmus test for conservatives who view the government lending agency as a symbol of crony capitalism in Washington. Its reauthorization is a top priority of business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says the Ex-Im creates U.S. jobs by helping companies reach overseas markets.

The entire House GOP leadership team, including McCarthy, supported a reauthorization of its charter in 2012, but with the charter expiring again at the end of September, its fate is in serious jeopardy. Boehner on Tuesday indicated he is in no rush to act.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate are taking different approaches on the bank. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday said the upper chamber should tackle the reauthorization even though he rejected it two years ago.

McCarthy won the election to replace Cantor last week over conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), who argued that House Republicans could not respond to Cantor’s loss by maintaining the status quo in their leadership team. A more conservative Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), won the race to succeed McCarthy as majority whip.

While campaigning for the job, McCarthy told Republicans he would defer to Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who has repeatedly called for ending the export bank.

And on Sunday, in his first television interview since the victory, McCarthy said he would allow the bank to expire at the end of September.

“I think Ex-Im Bank is one that government does not have to be involved in. The private sector can do it,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

McCarthy also staked out a hard-line position on immigration reform despite his past public support for a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.

“Until you secure the borders, you cannot have the conversation about anything else,” he said.

McCarthy and the rest of the GOP leadership team, including Boehner, will face another election by their colleagues after the November midterms, and lawmakers said privately on Tuesday that McCarthy was looking for ways to demonstrate his conservative bona fides.

“I think he’s doing exactly the right thing, and I really applaud what he’s doing,” Fleming said. “What you’re really seeing is a natural process, where leadership is beginning to migrate to realign itself to where the conference is, which is considerably more conservative than it was four years ago.”

A McCarthy aide said his position on immigration reform has been consistent and that he has always emphasized border security. On the bank, the staffer said that while McCarthy supported the bipartisan agreement in 2012, he and other lawmakers were disappointed that the Obama administration had not fully implemented the reforms called for in that legislation.

Rep. Bill Huizenga praised McCarthy for his handling of what he called an “awkward” situation: taking over for Cantor, his close friend and fellow GOP “Young Gun.” The Michigan Republican said that when McCarthy was introduced as the “new majority leader” immediately after the election on Thursday, he replied, “Not yet” — a reference to the fact that Cantor is staying on through the end of July to provide a smooth transition.

“He’s got to establish himself as his own leader, with his own issues and his own way that he’s going to operate,” Huizenga said. “I think he’s handled it well.”

McCarthy on Tuesday joined Boehner in pledging to contribute $1.5 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, a key marker in party leadership races.

He has also taken immediate steps to protect himself from the fate that befell Cantor. Within hours of his election, he aired a television ad in his home district in California telling his constituents that while he was honored to be elected majority leader, his “highest honor” remained representing them. In both press conferences he has held since the election, McCarthy has first acknowledged his own constituents, and on Tuesday he noted the rising price of gas, to $4.05 a gallon, in his home town of Bakersfield, Calif.

“That was a smart thing to do,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former NRCC chairman, said of McCarthy’s decision to air an ad immediately.

While Cole said he disagreed with him on the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, he predicted that the new leadership team would be safe from a challenge after November, “barring some surprise in the election.”

“I think this is pretty much the team we’re going to have to face the president and the Democrats through the Obama presidency,” Cole said.