McCarthy survives tumultuous week and emerges with a tight grip on House Republicans
Posted February 5, 2021 7:31 p.m. EST
CNN — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy began this week facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his time as leader. He emerged at the end of it having survived but not unscathed. While he has a tighter grip on his conference than before, others in the Republican establishment are concerned about the long-term health of the GOP and have sharply questioned his leadership.
McCarthy's task was to keep an angry, fractious conference together in the face of growing animus toward two very different members -- Reps. Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene. McCarthy, according to people on Capitol Hill familiar with his thinking, went into the week with one goal: no blood. That meant not taking sides between the establishment and pro-Trump wings of the party. The challenge was to save both wings and keep them unified.
To achieve this, McCarthy did what many Republicans outside of the House conference had long criticized him for -- not taking a firm enough stand on certain issues and allowing individual members to drive the conversation, even when they were espousing conspiracies and pushing the lie that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
While some Republicans saw his hands-off approach as a sign of weakness, the style was aimed at keeping the conference intact, even if some of the Republicans' dirty laundry had to be aired in public.
But by Friday, it was clear the Republican leader's strategy had paid off. The GOP conference was unified and his own position inside it was secure.
"You elected me leader," McCarthy told the conference at the end of their hours-long meeting Wednesday night. "Let me lead."
The speech was greeted with raucous applause.
McCarthy brought Republicans together in part by letting many of his members air their grievances against Cheney for her impeachment vote before getting the vast majority of the conference to support her staying in the leadership. He also pushed the thorny issue of removing Greene from her committee assignments onto the House Democratic majority, which they did on Thursday.
For many House Republicans, the episode was a triumph for McCarthy.
"He did a great job, I actually congratulated him today," Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a conservative, told CNN Friday.
"When you're a leader in a conference like this, that's diverse, and you're going to have diverse opinions, and they've got to try to thread that needle," said Rep. John Katko, a moderate from New York. "I think they did the best they could under the circumstances."
McCarthy did however manage to anger one key constituent. According to a source familiar, a stir-crazy Trump has spent the last two days livid and fuming to aides and allies about what he views as a betrayal by McCarthy for standing by Cheney and not punishing her for her vote to impeach. This just over a week after McCarthy made an appeal to Trump by visiting him down at Mar-a-Lago and extracting a public commitment that the former President will work to elect a Republican House majority in 2022.
Trump isn't the only Republican disappointed with McCarthy. Many in the establishment were looking for a more direct and stinging rebuke of Greene from the GOP leader. They worry failure to do so has damaged the party's ability to win by tying its brand to a conspiracy theorist.
"Kevin never takes a stand, he is always on every side of every issue," said one influential Republican adviser, who called the episode a "huge embarrassment and failure of leadership."
"Does he want to be the Republican party or the QAnon party?" the adviser added.
For McCarthy, however, it's a matter of balancing competing views.
"The Republicans Leader McCarthy wakes up every day to fight for are the Republicans in our conference and their constituents," said McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks. "Our conference is united and moving forward on their behalf."
Tolerating lies about the election
McCarthy's unity play has come at the cost of tolerating and even participating in lies about a stolen election and other conspiracy theories.
McCarthy was quiet when Republicans like Rep. Mo Brooks were leading the charge seeking to overturn the elections on Jan. 6, privately greenlighting their efforts and ultimately voting with them on the House floor to discard the electoral results of two states Joe Biden won -- hours after pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the Capitol seeking to stop the congressional certification of Biden's win.
He was also quiet about House Republicans' legal brief backing the Texas lawsuits seeking to invalidate millions of votes in key battleground states, before ultimately signing onto the effort himself. And he refused to acknowledge Biden's victory until more than two months after it was clear that the Democrat had won.
All of that has given McCarthy a reputation as an indecisive leader unwilling to take a strong stand and willing to turn a blind eye to even the most egregious actions by Trump. But in so doing, he has gained strong backing from the dominant pro-Trump wing of his conference -- with no clear challengers who could seek to oust him from the job or bid to take the Speaker's gavel if the GOP wins the majority next year.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a favorite of the Freedom Caucus and pro-Trump wing who challenged McCarthy in 2018, told CNN Friday there is "zero possibility" he will run against McCarthy for Speaker if Republicans win the majority next year.
"I'm focused on winning back the majority," Jordan said.
During the four-hour-plus venting session on Wednesday, McCarthy recalled a story about how he and Jordan were at odds and have since reconciled. And he made a plea to give him the leadership team he needs, including Cheney, to help the GOP retake the majority.
Not every House Republican is enthusiastic about McCarthy's leadership.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally who sought Cheney's ouster, wouldn't say if he has confidence in McCarthy's leadership; nor would Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who voted to impeach Trump.
On Wednesday, some aired their grievances about McCarthy himself -- namely how he handled his meeting at Mar-a-Lago with Trump.
"There were a number of members that thought it was inappropriate," Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, told CNN.
Griping from the establishment
There was, and remains, plenty of skepticism from some Republicans of McCarthy's ability to juggle the demands of an unwieldy House Republican conference.
McCarthy is known as a member's member -- a glad-hander who asks about his fellow Republicans' kids by name and remembers their wedding anniversaries. It's a trait that has served him well, first as a member of the GOP whip team and later as the whip himself.
And for years, McCarthy has been intimately involved in the House Republicans' candidate recruitment efforts as well as its fundraising -- meaning a large chunk of the GOP conference is made up of people he directly helped get elected.
But the 8-term Californian has not been known as a strategic thinker, especially when compared to his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. Republicans who know him say McCarthy is more inclined to seek conciliation and the path of least conflict.
That trait was on display in the deferential way he dealt with Greene. In one conversation with a senior Republican, according to a source familiar with the situation, McCarthy was advised to be very specific with Greene when they met to discuss her future -- to ask her directly whether she still agreed with the controversial comments she made and to go through them one by one. Without a full recant and public apology to the conference, the senior Republican told McCarthy, he would have to remove Greene.
"You don't speak to Marjorie Taylor Greene," said the influential Republican adviser. "You take action and remove her."
But McCarthy was less inclined to do so after he met with Greene on Tuesday. According to one person with knowledge of the conversation, Greene was cordial and seemed to acknowledge she had put the conference in a difficult spot.
On Wednesday morning, McCarthy made a final appeal to his Democratic counterpart, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Hoyer had the votes to oust Greene from her two committees, and Democrats were prepared to do so over her lies and conspiracy theorizing -- including her claim the 2018 Parkland school shooting was a "false flag" operation by supporters of tighter gun laws.
McCarthy offered this compromise to forestall a floor vote: Given the offense she caused to the Parkland victims, take Greene off the Education and Labor committee and place her on the Small Business committee. But Hoyer declined the offer, and McCarthy was left with no choice. Republicans wouldn't remove her, but they couldn't stop the Democratic majority.
For some outside the conference, this was a major embarrassment. The Republican adviser told CNN that by not punishing Greene himself, McCarthy was effectively allowing the majority to decide whether a member of the minority party can serve on a committee.
"How embarrassing is that?" said the adviser.
Greene would speak to the conference that night, where she struck an apologetic tone that seemed to satisfy enough of her GOP colleagues. But that speech, and a Thursday floor speech before the House vote, did not prevent 11 Republicans from joining every Democrat in stripping Greene of her assignments. But the fear among House Republicans that even more would break and vote to punish Greene was abated.
A look to the midterms
While the midterm elections are 21 months away, McCarthy allies view his actions as trying to prevent a potentially disastrous divide within the party. For McCarthy, dealing with both Cheney and Greene put him at risk of alienating everyone at once.
"We could have splintered really badly this week," Rep. Cole told CNN Friday.
The establishment, including Sen. McConnell and several donors, backed Cheney and wanted the party to rebuke Greene in the strongest of terms. The pro-Trump Freedom Caucus, channeling the GOP's base, had their knives out for Cheney and circled the wagons around Greene.
In turn McCarthy sought a middle path that might satisfy the establishment while validating the party's base -- an optimal outcome, if it works.
Denver Riggleman, the former Republican congressman from Virginia who remains close to many of his old colleagues, said McCarthy is primarily driven by political considerations.
"Kevin's calculus is, what does the polling look like in those districts and the fundraising in those districts," Riggleman said. "He's trying to read the tea leaves and bouncing back and forth to what he's hearing from the polling in the districts."
Others say it's clear the minority leader has cast his lot wholly with the most strident members of the House GOP.
"Kevin has been co-opted by [Jim] Jordan and the Freedom Caucus," said Charlie Dent, another former Republican congressman and a CNN contributor. "If he punishes MTG, those guys turn on him and withhold Speaker votes just like they did in 2015. McCarthy's failure to punish MTG makes it harder to win swing districts and therefore the majority. He put himself in a box."
McCarthy is also facing significant blowback from establishment Republicans, with some saying his recent moves will have severe consequences for the party and that he has sabotaged his own career.
"Any talk of the speakership is now a joke," the Republican adviser said.
But a Republican strategist tells CNN that McCarthy was in no position to simply cast Greene aside, since she has already proven herself to be a strong draw for the Republican base.
"Greene has been raising big small-dollar cash and is one of only a few people (Trump base) voters see as fighting," said this strategist.