Eight years ago, then-Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy was leading fellow Republicans in Sacramento, clawing for relevance in a Capitol dominated by Democrats.
Now McCarthy is the second most powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“From my perspective, he’s a guy who learns quickly,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from Tulare. “Let’s face it, it’s not very often you see someone rise so quickly to be the majority leader without having a lot of skill.”
That political aptitude is helping shape his party’s strategy as it prepares to convene the 114th Congress firmly in control of Capitol Hill. House Republicans bolstered by their largest majority in decades will take up many of the bills they previously passed that languished in the Democratic-run Senate.
McCarthy, 49, of Bakersfield said the House GOP’s agenda includes energy, education and foreign policy, health care, tax and regulatory reform, immigration and the California drought. Working with the Senate and passing legislation will signal Republicans are committed to legislating, he said, which is crucial to winning back the White House in 2016.
“I think it will change the whole debate,” McCarthy said, noting the country has notched major achievements under divided governments of the past.
Former President Ronald Reagan and Democrats reformed the tax code; Bill Clinton and Republicans overhauled welfare and balanced the federal budget, he said. “We have a really unique opportunity to do some very big things for the country.”
McCarthy, who still sleeps in his Washington office and travels back to his district every weekend, said another goal will be to demonstrate competence by tightening oversight and passing smaller-scale legislation with Democratic support.
He has circulated a memo to colleagues detailing several blunders and scandals such as those involving Veterans Affairs, the Secret Service and Internal Revenue Service that he said undermine the public’s trust in government, but can be fixed by Congress.
“The way you get competency is you hold people accountable,” he said.
His plans to restore public confidence won’t be easy. A new Associated Press/GfK poll found just 36 percent of Americans believe lawmakers will restore trust in government. The same survey showed 13 percent think the Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama will work together to solve problems.
McCarthy has taken heat from some conservatives, including over the recent $1.1 trillion spending bill. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, represents a mostly rural agricultural district with some similar poverty, labor and resource issues. While the pair have been on opposite sides of issues, including stalled emergency drought legislation, Garamendi said McCarthy’s chief challenge remains negotiating the divide between members of his GOP conference.
“I see him in a very difficult position bridging and negotiating between the tea party Republicans and the traditional Republicans in his caucus,” he said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, described McCarthy as a “constitutional conservative” and said Republicans who are less familiar with his politics “will be very pleasantly surprised.” McClintock credited McCarthy with incorporating the concerns of dissenters following a GOP impasse over immigration legislation.
“He combines good policy with the best political skills I have ever seen,” McClintock said. “He is really without parallel in his ability to assess where the individual stands, where they agree and what coalition he can assemble to get as close to his policy goal.”
McCarthy said he is committed to pursuing a deal on California water. Experts said what can be achieved will depend on the approach.
Less politically charged housekeeping bills on transportation, infrastructure and trade could be used to get the motors of bipartisan government running, said Lara Brown, an associate professor and director of the Political Management Program at The George Washington University.
She expects Republicans to pursue a much more aggressive energy exploration policy, partly because it fractures Democrats. That will force Obama to decide whether to sign legislation or issue a veto, something he’s done just twice compared with George W. Bush’s 12 vetoes and Clinton’s 37. Issues that are too highly partisan, however, are not likely to move forward, given that Republicans still lack a a veto- and filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Brown said.
McCarthy said Americans want a government that’s effective, efficient and accountable, but also innovative.
He wants to end brinksmanship and corral debt. He is critical of Obama’s unilateral decision to shield unauthorized immigrants, but said he sees an opportunity to overhaul immigration laws. He said Obamacare must be pulled “out by the roots” and replaced, with customers phased into a new system.
He reserved his harshest assessments for California’s $68 billion high-speed rail system championed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. McCarthy said he would move to withhold federal funding for a network he suspects the government will have to subsidize if it is ever built.
“Sometimes it shows greater leadership when someone can look at a problem and say … ‘This won’t pan out; I am going to have to change course,’” he said of Brown. “And I think that would be the best option knowing financially where we are in California.”
Despite his own ascent, McCarthy demurs when asked about his political aspirations.
“Any teacher who ever had me says I am further than they ever thought I could make it,” he said. “I am very happy where I am, and as long as I can still be helpful in my district, this is where I am at.”
Title: House majority leader
Résumé highlights: House majority leader; majority whip; chief deputy whip; California Assembly Republican leader; trustee to the Kern Community College District.
Chief goal in 2015: Take up many of the bills that passed the House in the last session. Stop high-speed rail and pull Obamacare “out by the roots.”
Biggest challenge in 2015: Getting President Barack Obama to engage with a new Republican Congress to adopt policies that find a common ground.