WASHINGTON — House Republicans promoted Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy to become the House majority leader in a rare mid-session ballot necessitated by Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in a June 10 Virginia primary.
The California Republican, 49, has built a reputation as a gregarious and politically savvy pol despite some failings in the more confrontational whip role, which is tasked with counting and securing votes in a divided GOP conference to pass legislation. The majority leader is responsibility for coordinating the legislative agenda with committee chairmen and managing the U.S. House schedule as second-in-command to the speaker.
McCarthy quickly locked up support — including Cantor’s public endorsement — and he faced only token opposition from Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Tea Party-aligned lawmaker. Labrador’s candidacy reflected the frustration among the party’s grass-roots toward the establishment and over the lack of conservatives from red states at the leadership table.
Cantor opted to relinquish his post in order to head off months of divisive jockeying when leadership elections will be held again in November after the mid-term elections. Cantor will officially step down at the end of July, but he will serve out his term in the House. McCarthy will be well-positioned in November’s leadership elections if Republicans maintain control of the U.S. House, as expected.
McCarthy’s elevation opened up the number-three job for whip. Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, who heads a powerful faction of conservatives, beat back two challengers: Peter Roskam of Illinois, who has served as McCarthy’s chief deputy in the whip’s office, and Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman. Scalise was boosted by a concerted effort by some lawmakers to elect a leader from a red state. The leadership team is dominated by lawmakers from blue states, despite the party’s strength rooted in Southern, conservative states.
The midyear shake-up is unlikely to fundamentally change the legislative agenda, but it will test the new leaders’ abilities to manage a divisive conference in an election year. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was not challenged in Thursday’s voting.
McCarthy comes to the majority leader’s office with a thin policy résumé, but he has many political allies from his prior stints at the National Republican Congressional Committee where he helped recruit candidates in the 2010 wave election that swept Republicans into power.
There are few workdays remaining in the congressional calendar this year, and fewer must-pass pieces of legislation. Congress is working its way through the annual spending bills, and a stop-gap funding measure will likely be necessary before the Sept. 30 deadline to avoid another government shutdown.
Congress must also find a way to shore up the depleted Highway Trust Fund, which funds the nation’s construction of roads and bridges among other infrastructure projects, and is running out of money. Other priorities include finding compromises on legislation to improve veterans’ access to health care and renewing a Bush-era law that created a federal backstop for insurance claims related to acts of terrorism.
Expectations for an immigration overhaul ahead of the midterm elections were already low, but they dropped even further after Cantor’s primary loss, which was partially attributed to his support of a pathway for citizenship for children who were brought to the country by their parents.
Also likely to fall to the wayside in the House is a Cantor-backed plan to offer a Republican alternative to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Few Republicans had rallied behind the idea and with no chance of enactment, lawmakers see little merit to the exercise.
Lawmakers say the biggest change will likely be stylistically. While Cantor and McCarthy have long been House allies, McCarthy brings a more informal approach.
“Kevin is much different than Eric so I think you’re going to see someone who is much more jovial,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
A former deli-owner and congressional aide, McCarthy is perhaps the most social member of leadership. He often organizes outings for members, such as movie nights and bike rides around Washington. He is also an avid user of social media, particularly Instagram. A recent photo post showed McCarthy shirtless on a Cancun beach in 1987 drinking out of a coconut. “Let the summer begin,” he wrote.