Drought crisis presents big test for House GOP’s No. 2

Before he’s even considered for the Speaker’s job, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will have to deftly navigate a growing crisis in his own backyard: the Golden State’s devastating drought.

It’s a critical moment for the GOP’s second-in-command. If he hopes to take over when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) retires, McCarthy must show he can lead an often-unruly Republican Conference in Washington while making sure he doesn’t lose touch with folks back home.

{mosads}In an exclusive interview with The Hill, McCarthy cast the historic drought as a “life or death issue” for his agriculture-rich district in the Central Valley, where the unemployment rate tops 30 percent in some farming communities as fields are left fallow.

But he’s also seized on the issue to ensure he won’t fall to the same fate as former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the man he replaced as majority leader. Cantor was long seen as the Speaker-in-waiting but suffered a shocking primary loss last summer — a defeat many blamed on Cantor taking his eye off his district.

McCarthy is sending the signal that he’s engaged with constituents back home in his Bakersfield district, where the economy generates more than $3 billion a year in produce, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, almonds and pistachios.

When Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown announced the first-ever water restrictions for California residents, McCarthy railed against Democratic environmental policies — a favorite GOP punching bag — that have restricted the state’s ability to capture and store more rainwater during wetter years. 

It’s a play that could be music to the ears of his constituents — and conservatives.

“This plays well within the Republican caucus — criticizing the president, talking about the imbalance of laws that favor fish over farmers. As a majority leader who wants to be Speaker one day, he’s always trying to figure out how to improve his standing,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who served as chief speechwriter for former GOP Gov. Pete Wilson.

In the phone interview from Bakersfield, McCarthy offered up a favorite maxim of California politicians to underscore the stakes: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” And the congressman known for his usually sunny disposition framed the drought, now stretching into its third year, in near-apocalyptic terms.

“This is no longer about being a political issue. This has really become a life or death issue for so many throughout the Central Valley. And it’s really about the future of California.” 

“The saddest thing is we warned this day would come, and now this day is here,” he continued. “It didn’t have to be — that’s what makes you more angry than almost anything else.”

Brown drew national headlines last week by ordering a 25 percent cut in water consumption for cities in the nation’s most-populous state. The agriculture industry, which consumes 80 percent of the state’s water and produces most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, was exempted — a move McCarthy called the “right” decision. But the GOP leader said he’s been focused on the state’s water woes since long before it became politically popular, using his leadership posts to shepherd drought legislation through his chamber.

The GOP-led House passed a bill in February 2014 that would have created new dams and taken water flowing from Northern California to the Pacific Ocean, diverting it to parched farmlands in the Central Valley. The legislation, sponsored by California’s GOP delegation, also would have ended protections for salmon and other fish species. But it was opposed by environmentalists and their Democratic allies in the White House and Congress.

McCarthy spent much of last year negotiating with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on compromise legislation. In December, the House pushed ahead with a revised emergency drought bill, but it too stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And efforts to tuck drought provisions into the must-pass end-of-the-year “cromnibus” package were stymied by California’s other Democratic senator, McCarthy said.

“Barbara Boxer blew it up,” he said.

Boxer, through a spokesman, declined to comment, but she’s previously rejected McCarthy’s accusations that she’s to blame. The top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer has slammed McCarthy for holding “secret discussions” on the water bill that shut out key stakeholders.

McCarthy says he’s ready to move on — with or without help from Boxer, who’s retiring at the end of next year. He said he’s working closely with Feinstein and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to figure out what kind of drought bill can clear the Senate.

And because his role as House majority leader allows him to control the floor schedule, McCarthy has pledged to push a new bill through his chamber this session.

“We will move water legislation,” he declared in the interview.

A former deli owner, Capitol Hill staffer and state assemblyman, the 50-year-old McCarthy was elected to Congress in 2006 and quickly climbed the leadership ladder alongside his close friend, Cantor. When Cantor was elected minority whip, he named McCarthy his chief deputy whip. And when Cantor seized the majority leader post after the 2010 GOP wave election, McCarthy won the top whip job.

McCarthy clearly took note of what happened to Cantor, GOP aides said.

“Since Cantor’s loss, I think everyone is more sensitive about making sure you’re focused on hyper-local issues,” said a House GOP leadership aide who doesn’t work for McCarthy. “This is one that’s getting tons of publicity. It’s getting a lot of conversation, and it’s one where he can say, ‘I’m leading on this issue in Congress.’ ”

Whalen said McCarthy’s engagement demonstrates that “he has his finger on the pulse in the community.”

So far, Boehner hasn’t indicated whether he’ll step down or seek a fourth term as Speaker after the 2016 elections.

But former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), McCarthy’s mentor who previously held the Bakersfield-area House seat, said McCarthy has closely heeded his political advice during his rapid rise to power. He’s kept his head down, put in the legwork fundraising for and helping elect fellow Republicans, and seized opportunities when they’ve presented themselves.

“I’ve always told him don’t start setting out specific goals, saying ‘I’m going to become this’ and ‘I’m going to become that,’ ” Thomas, who served as Ways and Means chairman, said in an interview from Bakersfield. “The going is the goal, and he’s done a great job so far of going.

“He’s now walked through the whip door and he’s walked through majority leader door, so let’s see what happens … when the dust settles” after 2016.

Tags Barbara Boxer Boehner Dianne Feinstein Eric Cantor John Boehner Lisa Murkowski

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