Trump demands undermine unity of GOP leaders
Tensions that flared between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) during the debt ceiling standoff revealed the two leaders’ differing styles and personalities and raised questions about their relationship going forward.
The main source of division between the two top Republicans in Congress is their contrasting relationships with former President Trump, whose day-to-day comments on events in Washington have a major influence over the GOP.
Trump called on Republican lawmakers to pull out all the stops to oppose raising the nation’s debt limit — even though it would have risked a federal credit default — arguing doing so would have stopped President Biden’s climate and social spending package.
McConnell twice crafted deals with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to extend the nation’s borrowing authority and protect its credit rating while McCarthy voted no both times
McCarthy specifically quashed McConnell’s idea to link a bill to create a special legislative pathway for debt limit legislation to the defense bill, forcing the Senate leader to pivot at the last moment to pair it with a bill to avert scheduled Medicare cuts.
While Trump insisted the debt limit could be used to “totally kill the Democrats’ new social spending” bill, McConnell insisted all along that he would not risk a national default.
Trump also came out staunchly against the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package — which McConnell backed earlier this year and McCarthy did not — because it handed Biden a major bipartisan policy accomplishment.
McConnell hailed the infrastructure bill as a “godsend for Kentucky” while McCarthy spoke against it on the House floor for more than 8 hours, setting a record in an attention-grabbing effort to slow it down by a day.
Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns, said McConnell has been more focused on demonstrating to swing voters that the Republican Party would be able to govern if given more power in Washington while McCarthy has focused on keeping his fractious caucus unified, which he has done effectively.
“The nature of the two chambers demands a different style out of McConnell than McCarthy. In the Senate with its 50-50 [split,] even though Democrats are nominally the majority party, the nature of the rules demand some cooperation between the parties for the country to operate,” he said.
Jennings said McConnell was intent on avoiding a political crisis that could have changed the narrative in Washington at a time when Republicans are winning the public debate over Biden’s agenda, at least according to opinion polls that show Biden’s approval rating at just over 40 percent.
“What McConnell did was clear the decks of an issue that if it went sideways and we did somehow default that could throw an unneeded or unwanted variable into how people view the Republican Party and whether people view it as a responsible governing party,” he said.
“Republicans do have to be viewed as a legitimate alternative and I think they’re there, obviously if you look at the polling they’re there,” he added. “You don’t want to do anything that causes people to second guess that. I think that’s some of McConnell’s calculus.”
McCarthy, however, is so confident of Republicans winning control of the House next year that he’s already predicting a GOP net pickup of 60 seats. For him the bigger concern is keeping his caucus unified enough to win a Speaker’s election with Trump’s blessing.
Members of McConnell’s leadership team and senior Senate GOP aides downplay the notion that there’s a growing personal divide between the two leaders.
One Senate GOP aide said McConnell and McCarthy meet in person at least once a work period, trading off on hosting in their respective leadership offices.
Aside from these face-to-face sit-downs, the leaders maintain regular weekly communication either in person or through staff, the aide said.
Yet much of McConnell’s interactions with McCarthy are kept private, so much so that even members of McConnell’s leadership team say it’s hard to assess their relationship.
“I don’t have an accurate feel for that. Probably the answer is they talk often but not often enough,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said when asked about the relationship between the two leaders.
Other GOP lawmakers and aides say disagreements between McConnell and McCarthy over politics and policy stem primarily from Trump’s greater influence over the internal dynamics of the House GOP conference compared to the Senate GOP conference.
The bottom line is that McConnell does not need Trump’s support to be reelected as Senate Republican leader after the 2022 midterm elections while McCarthy must have Trump’s backing to be elected the next Speaker.
As a result, McCarthy has had to be much more deferential to Trump’s public statements, creating a disconnect between the two GOP leaders.
The dissonance isn’t a critical problem yet because McCarthy is the House minority leader and has relatively little influence over getting must-pass legislation across the finish line. But if Republicans win back the House majority — as experts increasingly expect — it will become a bigger issue.
“The cultures in the Senate and House are different. You got to be able to bridge those differences and that’s why your leaders have to have a good relationship,” said Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
Thune acknowledged that there are “very different personalities, as you know, in the House” but emphasized that McConnell tries to get along with his allies in the lower chamber.
Thune observed “that caucus in the House is pretty diverse and there are a lot of supporters, strong supporters of the former president there and that’s something McCarthy has to manage.”
“In the Senate, people view some of these issues perhaps differently but [it] helps when you got six years term,” he added, observing that senators are less impacted by Trump’s influence over the Republican base because they face primary elections every six years instead of every two years, a House members do.
House lawmakers said McCarthy’s firm opposition to the debt limit deal was rooted in his read of his 213-member GOP conference, as well as the GOP base. Endorsing the debt hike would have been viewed by the right as supporting Biden’s big-spending agenda, they said.
“Kevin McCarthy is the Republican leader most in tune with the Republican party base and understands that the Republican base wants to fight back against the Biden agenda and the left-wing agenda of the Democrats,” said one House GOP McCarthy ally.
Backing the debt deal also would have infuriated Trump and severely jeopardized McCarthy’s chances of fulfilling his career goal of being elected Speaker of the House. To win the Speaker’s gavel, McCarthy will likely need the support of the 45th president and many of his loyalists on Capitol Hill, including from the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
“It’s a political hot potato,” said one member of the Freedom Caucus.
McConnell only needs to win a majority vote of the Senate Republican conference to be elected as Senate majority or minority leader.
The House rules, however, require that McCarthy win a majority of the entire House — 218 votes — to be elected Speaker in a floor vote. That means he could afford only a few defections in the election to replace Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) if Republicans win back the majority.
“Trump has a greater hold on the House Republican Conference than he does the Senate GOP Caucus — that’s the difference. And Trump could easily turn around and say, ‘Don’t support McCarthy. Support Scalise or McHenry or somebody, I can easily see how Trump could walk away from McCarthy. They seem to have a bit of a stormy relationship,” said one former House Republican who served with McCarthy.
“Many members of the House GOP Conference are much more loyal to Trump than are most members of the Senate GOP Conference,” the source added. “McConnell always struck me as very secure in his position with his members and McCarthy seems to be less secure, particularly as it relates to the sway Trump holds over many members of the House conference.”