To stay in power, Kevin McCarthy must put conservatives ahead of K Street

Reuters

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks next to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (C) and then Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 28, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Assuming McCarthy wins the leader race on Thursday, his next six months will be something of a tryout.

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  • McCarthy's strength on Capitol Hill has been his personal connections.

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  • From the moment he arrived in 2007, McCarthy has built relationships and earned favors.

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  • “He’ll be the weakest majority leader ever,” one Republican lobbyist told me.

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California Congressman Kevin McCarthy will likely win the election this week for House majority leader. Then he'll spend six months working to keep that job when House Republicans choose their leadership again, after the November elections.

Winning the love of his party and warding off a leadership challenge will force McCarthy to occasionally break with his longtime ally — the business lobby.

McCarthy's strength on Capitol Hill has been his personal connections. From the moment he arrived in 2007, McCarthy has built relationships and earned favors. When Eric Cantor tapped McCarthy as chief deputy whip in 2009, he put McCarthy in line to become majority whip. From that position, McCarthy built the IOU network that makes him the dominant favorite in this week's rushed race for majority leader.

But McCarthy has some natural weaknesses: His spotty vote-counting work as whip has led to embarrassing losses on the House floor. In his fourth term in Washington, he's fairly junior for a majority leader. McCarthy's conservative bona fides are also lacking: Last year, his Club for Growth score was 53 percent, placing him in 189th out of 235 House Republicans.

These flaws create two related problems for McCarthy: He may have trouble holding on to his majority leader job when the GOP holds new leadership elections after November; also, as long as he is leader, McCarthy may not have much sway over his famously unruly party.

“He’ll be the weakest majority leader ever,” one Republican lobbyist told me. “Nobody feared him as whip,” so why would they follow his marching orders as leader?

The next six months will give McCarthy the chance to improve on all counts. To shore up his conservative credentials, he’s already started ditching some of his “pro-business” views for free-enterprise views.

McCarthy was once a leading GOP champion of windmill subsidies, consistently supporting the federal "Production Tax Credit" for wind power. General Electric manufactures turbines in his district, and GE is probably the biggest beneficiary of the PTC.

McCarthy was a past cosponsor of legislation extending the PTC. The American Wind Energy Association – the industry’s top lobby – saw him as a key ally. A leaked 2011 AWEA document bragged that they held a fundraiser for McCarthy that netted $20,000.

By then, however, McCarthy was beginning to lose his enthusiasm for wind subsidies -- maybe the Solyndra collapse and the 2010 Tea Party revolution swayed him a bit. Still, in late 2012, he voted to extend the PTC.

After Cantor's loss created this impromptu leadership race -- especially in light of Dave Brat's attack on crony capitalism -- McCarthy finally broke with the wind tax credit. He told the Wall Street Journal last week that the credit should expire: "I think they've had their time" he said of the wind companies.

If McCarthy can abandon K Street for free enterprise on wind subsidies, will he move right on other issues?

For instance, will McCarthy continue to sidle up to entrepreneur Elon Musk, a big Obama donor? Recently, McCarthy brought in Musk to address House Republicans. McCarthy has publicly touted Musk's company SpaceX as a pioneer in private-sector space travel. Of course, SpaceX is primarily a government contractor. Musk's other companies -- Solar City and carmaker Tesla -- depend on federal subsidies. Musk embodies Obamanomics: Business and government working together. And McCarthy holds him up as a role model -- an odd icon for a GOP leader.

McCarthy also voted in 2013 to save the indefensible sugar subsidy program. Nine different political action committees from the sugar industry have funded his last two elections, contributing $29,500 combined. Most of his party voted to kill the program. To consolidate his support, will McCarthy convert on this issue?

Most pressing in 2014: the corporate-welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank. McCarthy supported its renewal in 2012, but it expires again this fall. Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling opposes renewal. Majority Leader Cantor, it was widely suspected, would pull the reauthorization bill away from Hensarling and put it on the House floor, even if most Republicans oppose it -- and the party currently looks evenly split on the matter.

After Brat brought down Cantor with the corporate welfare charge, would Leader McCarthy really subvert committee authority and violate the Hastert Rule in order to reauthorize President Obama’s favorite corporate welfare bank?

Assuming McCarthy wins the leader race on Thursday, his next six months will be something of a tryout. His judges won’t be exporters, sugar growers, and windmill makers. His judges will be House Republicans. Can he learn to sing their tune?

Timothy P. Carney, a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner, can be contacted at [email protected] This column is reprinted with permission from washingtonexaminer.com.

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