Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. James Comer were sitting near each other at Cardinal Stadium late last month, watching Kentucky and Louisville’s home-state football rivalry turn into a one-sided affair.
And one topic came up: Kevin McCarthy.
The two Bluegrass State lawmakers spoke at length about the House GOP leader from California, who has broken with McConnell on a range of major issues over the last several months but who will be forced to work in tandem with him to govern if Republicans take back Congress next year.
“We talked a lot about McCarthy there,” Comer said, before adding of McConnell, “He speaks highly of McCarthy.”
With control of both chambers at stake in next year’s midterms, the two top Republican leaders have increasingly taken sharply divergent positions on major issues dominating Congress, reflecting both the different institutions that they lead but also how they view the GOP’s posture headed into a hugely consequential election season.
With a 50-seat minority in a chamber where 60 votes are needed to get anything done, the GOP’s longest-serving Senate leader has been forced to cut deals with Democrats and President Joe Biden — accords that have run into a buzzsaw of opposition from McCarthy and House Republicans. McConnell, more than 20 years McCarthy’s senior, believes they can govern as the GOP fights tooth-and-nail to derail much of the Biden agenda.
But in the House, where minority party votes are rarely needed by the majority, the 56-year-old McCarthy has positioned Republicans as steadfastly opposed to virtually anything backed by Biden — even if it means voting against legislation to fend off default, keep the government running or pour money into roads, bridges and broadband.
Looming over everything is former President Donald Trump, who has furiously attacked McConnell for months but whose support McCarthy views as essential to taking back the House and for his own chances to become the next speaker. And how the two men will work with a Biden White House in an all-GOP Congress if Republicans sweep the midterms has many on the Hill scratching their heads.
“Governing in the majority is a lot harder,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican and former House member. “The thing about factions that I’ve observed: They can be very effective in the minority, but they make governing very difficult.”
In recent months, their differences have become readily apparent, even as they have remained united against Biden’s roughly $2 trillion proposed expansion of the social safety net.
McConnell was one of 19 Senate Republicans who backed the sweeping infrastructure legislation, which McCarthy aggressively lobbied his members to reject. To avoid a government shutdown, McConnell backed a deal to keep the government open until mid-February, something that McCarthy and all but one House Republican voted against over concerns about Biden’s vaccine mandates.
And staring at the prospects of a calamitous debt default as soon as next week, McConnell worked behind the scenes with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to create a fast-track process that will allow the national borrowing limit to be increased on Democratic votes alone. The bill to create that new, temporary process was strongly opposed by McCarthy.
Asked about the fact that it was McConnell who cut that deal, McCarthy took a shot at Democrats.
“Democrats had a long time to do it,” McCarthy told CNN. “Why did they wait for the last minute to do it?”
But behind the scenes, McConnell tried to bring McCarthy into the fold. As he ventured across the Capitol last week, McConnell ducked into McCarthy’s office for a meeting that lasted roughly 30 minutes. In the meeting, McConnell floated an idea to resolve the debt ceiling standoff by tying the issue to an annual defense policy bill, according to a source briefed on the meeting.
McCarthy informed McConnell that the proposal wouldn’t fly in the House and warned him that Republicans would “bail” on the defense legislation, according to a GOP lawmaker who later heard about the conversation. That idea was ultimately scrapped.
McConnell left the meeting and continued to negotiate with Schumer. And ultimately, McConnell cut a deal — backed by Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to fold the fast-track debt ceiling process into a more popular measure to stave off deep cuts to Medicare.
House members were angry.
Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican who is running for the Senate with a Trump endorsement, called McConnell a “big spender” and said he would “prefer someone more conservative” as leader.
“But he is who he is,” Brooks added. “It’s expected there will be disagreements from time to time.”
Rep. Billy Long, a Missouri Republican seeking Trump’s endorsement in his Senate run, complained that McConnell’s deal amounted to “dysfunction.”
“Today we find another way to be more dysfunctional,” Long said.
But when asked twice if he’d back McConnell as leader if he becomes a senator, Long stayed quiet, appeared to shake his head and walked onto an elevator.
Many Republicans in the Senate defended McConnell, saying the rules mean that 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster attempt — so 10 GOP votes would be needed to help avoid a default. And they said that the deal that was cut will ultimately hurt Democrats since they will be forced to specify a dollar amount that they’d raise the debt limit to — likely north of $30 trillion — and pass that increase on their votes alone.
“If they get the majority back and we do too, Republicans will be on this issue — and it’ll be up to Republicans to deliver the votes,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said of House Republicans and the debt limit. “So be careful sometimes what you wish for.”
Differences over Trump
Yet the disagreements have gone beyond the most recent policy disputes. In responding earlier this year to incendiary comments from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a hard-right Republican from Georgia, McConnell said her views were tantamount to “loony lies and conspiracy theories” and were a “cancer” to the GOP. But earlier this fall, McCarthy said he would reinstate Greene on her committees, potentially even “better” ones, if Republicans take the House after Democrats booted her from assignments in the wake of her controversial comments.
And just a few weeks before McCarthy and his conference ousted Rep. Liz Cheney from his leadership team, McConnell told CNN that the Wyoming Republican was a leader of “great convictions.”
The divide in no small part has to do with Trump.
While both McConnell and McCarthy voted against the Democratic-led impeachment effort charging Trump with inciting the January 6 insurrection, McConnell has stood by his criticism that the former President was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack. McCarthy, however, walked back his criticism of Trump and found himself posing with the former President after a jaunt to Mar-a-Lago less than a month after the Capitol attack.
And while McConnell now assiduously avoids discussing Trump — and even said “nice try” when asked at a recent Wall Street Journal event about whether they’ve spoken since January 6 — McCarthy has no problem talking about his relationship with the former President.
“He called up, he was on the golf course,” McCarthy recently told reporters, when asked about the last time he spoke to Trump. “Catching up. Wasn’t even campaign [related] either.”
‘We better stick together’
A House Republican familiar with the McCarthy-McConnell dynamic said the pair communicates well, even if they don’t always move in lockstep or sometimes have different leadership styles.
“They don’t surprise each other,” the GOP lawmaker said.
The two leaders meet regularly whenever Congress is in session, another GOP source said.
Still, other House Republicans have started to sound the alarm about the GOP leaders not always being publicly on the same page, directing much of their ire at McConnell.
“We better stick together,” said Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican. “It’s imperative that Republicans all march in one direction. … This is training for, hopefully, next session.”
But if Republicans manage to take back the Senate next year, GOP senators say much of the credit will belong to McConnell as he’s navigated choppy waters.
“If we end up in the majority, it’s hard not to credit Mitch McConnell,” Cramer said. “Even if you have to take a bite of a crap sandwich every now and then, if it’s engineered in a way that results in the majority, I think we have to acknowledge his role in that.”
But if Democrats keep the Senate, will McConnell hold onto the leadership post?
“That’d obviously make it more difficult,” Cramer said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
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