Inside the House, the era of pork, Tom DeLay–style intimidation, and backroom deals is over — in fact, it’s been dead for years. Republicans have sworn off earmarks, and they recoil at anything that’s comprehensive. This makes the job of whipping votes exceedingly difficult, and the leadership often has only a smile and handshake to offer wary members. But amid these circumstances, Kevin McCarthy of California, the House GOP’s whip, has emerged as a calming force. His bargaining powers are limited, but he has a light touch that helps keep the conference from imploding.
The recent farm-bill drama was a window into McCarthy’s method — and a sign that on immigration, he may be the player capable of ushering legislation through the lower chamber. McCarthy wasn’t able to prevent a floor fiasco — the farm bill failed to pass on its initial vote. But at the eleventh hour, he was able to quietly corral conservatives around a revised farm bill and pass it with a slim majority. For a raucous Republican conference, it was a fleeting moment of cohesion; for McCarthy, it was reminder that patience and pacing are critical to his success.
In an interview, McCarthy recalls how he spent days huddling with on-the-fence Republicans in his first-floor Capitol office, going over their concerns and trying to reach a consensus. Instead of needling them for breaking with the leadership on the first vote, he wooed them with camaraderie. There were meetings with the old bulls and morning bike rides with the younger exercise enthusiasts — anything to establish mutual trust. “It was tough,” he says. “We had to find a way to stay together, not just for the farm bill, but to keep us together ahead of immigration and the debt ceiling.”
McCarthy’s message in those sessions was simple: “You bring people together and you tell them, ‘This is like sitting in the exit row.’ You have to see who is willing, at some level, to support it,” he says. “Then you go around the room and get people engaged. We quickly found that by splitting up the bill, we’d be able to get to our number. Once we got there, it was a huge shot in the arm, but you’ve got to get there first.”
McCarthy believes the farm-bill experience has consequences beyond alleviating internal tensions. He says House Republicans, who have long been cautious about moving forward on immigration reform, are now more open to considering such legislation. Before the farm bill, there was resistance to pursuing a piecemeal strategy and doubts about the leadership’s cloakroom clout. Since the farm bill passed, “I’ve felt momentum,” McCarthy says. “We’re able to do things on our own terms.”
He argues that the farm bill’s passage, though arduous, also gives Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia leverage for negotiations with Democrats on immigration, since they proved that they still have the support of a majority of House Republicans on big-ticket items. “The speaker’s hand is strengthened,” he says. “In politics, you’ve got to show that you can get bills through without the other side. We did that, and we got back to where we needed to be as a Republican team.”
But even with the buoyed spirits within McCarthy’s circle, immigration will be a challenge. A growing group of conservatives is worried that if the House passes its version of reform, those bills could be forged with the Senate bill in a conference and linked with a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. That would be a no-go for many House Republicans. McCarthy acknowledges that he has heard this sort of fretting behind the scenes, but he’s unwilling to say that immigration reform is fated to die.
“On any issue, things can start off bad,” McCarthy says. “But there are two ways you can handle adversity — you can deny it or you can overcome it. We overcame it on the farm bill, and that was when we had a timeline that was very fast.” With immigration, he’s not asking his colleagues to endorse a plan, but hopes they can proceed. “We control our own clock, and we don’t have to worry about whether the Democrats are trying to speed it up,” he says. “If we take our time, we’ll be able to try to solve the problem.”
McCarthy’s optimism is hardly surprising. In a House where anxiety grips Republicans on a near-daily basis, the silver-haired whip is accustomed to shrugging off reports of impending doom. He’s heard it before on almost everything this year, starting with the fiscal cliff in January. On immigration, he says with a chuckle, he’s hearing similar crowing from the press. “I’ve never said it’s easy, but we’re more together than you think,” he tells me. “And we’ll make it through this, just like before.”
McCarthy may be wrong, but he sounds reassuring. In this Republican House, and with no pork to hand out, that’s perhaps the best any whip can do.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.