Politics & Policy

Conservatives Warm to McCarthy at Boehner’s Expense

The speaker's loss may be the majority leader's gain.

When House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) was asked about Senate Democrats blocking debate on the House-passed Department of Homeland Security funding bill, he argued for a bomb-throwing tactic favored by the most hardcore immigration hawks among the House’s rank and file: the nuclear option.

“That’s not in the Constitution,” McCarthy said on Meet the Press, referring to the rule that allows 40 senators to filibuster debate on a bill. “I think they should change the rules.”

McCarthy’s statement put him in a very small camp of Republicans. The Senate never seriously considered eliminating the filibuster; even Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas), one of the most vociferous opponents of President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration, opposed the rule change.

Some House conservatives regard McCarthy’s decision to go out on that limb as an public indication of a disagreement between the top two House Republicans. Rumors of a brewing coup, from any quarter, were greatly exaggerated, but it does seem that last week’s House Republican debate over funding DHS endeared McCarthy to an unlikely wing of the conference, at Boehner’s expense.

Aides to the senior lawmakers denied any breach. “Our entire leadership team was on the same page,” says Mike Long, a spokesman for the majority leader.

“McCarthy and Boehner and [House Majority Whip Steve Scalise] all went on the Sunday shows and emphasized that the right thing to do under our constitution, in regular order, is for the Senate to agree to go to conference and resolve the difference between the bills,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel says in concurrence.

And yet, correctly or not, some of the Republicans who voted against the three-week continuing resolution to fund DHS last week see it differently. Representative Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) “doesn’t fault leadership at all,” but he believes Boehner prioritized the national security problems raised by the DHS funding lapse, while McCarthy regarded the “constitutional damage” done by Obama’s orders as the paramount concern for Congress.

“I think they’re both trying to do both, but perhaps there is a slight difference of sincere opinion on which takes the ultimate precedent,” Franks, the chair of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, tells NR.

In private, other Republican lawmakers offered a starker assessment of their leaders. “I think McCarthy is really doing everything that he can to work more closely with conservatives,” says one member of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC), which provided most of the GOP opposition to the three-week CR.

Not all members of the HFC share that perspective. Representative Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) regards Boehner and McCarthy as allies who “offered not only the smart strategy in fighting on this ground but the only strategy for fighting on this ground.”

The inclination to view Boehner and McCarthy differently strengthened after the American Action Network, a group led by a former chief of staff to Boehner, unveiled a plan to spend $400,000 on ads targeting lawmakers who voted against the three-week CR.

“The speaker has nothing but disdain for the people in our group,” says one HFC member. “Kudos to [McCarthy] for actually understanding the politics of unity versus the politics of division. . . . The upshot of that is it does make him look more statesmanlike.”

That frustration might ease in light of Boehner’s repudiation of the ads. “We are forbidden by law from coordinating with outside political groups, but the speaker does not think that these ads are helpful,” Steel tells NR.

And McCarthy’s spokesman says he’s not making any special effort to cultivate unhappy conservatives. “McCarthy is constantly, constantly talking to members,” Long says. “There is an open-door policy for every member of this conference.”

Still, the last week has some Republicans thinking McCarthy stole a march on Boehner. “There is only so much political capital that any politician has, and I don’t care how big that politician is, or thinks they are, they’ve only got so much reserved,” one Republican congressman tells NR. “And [Boehner] is just about out.”

McCarthy doesn’t need to break with Boehner for his growing respect among immigration hawks — many of whom have distrusted his commitment to their position on the issue in the past — to help him gain the speaker’s gavel. In the event that Boehner steps down, a potential rival to McCarthy might find that there’s a little less support for an alternative candidate. In the meantime, the majority leader seems to have gained a bit more credibility as a strategist with the skeptical conservative base.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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