House Republicans are voicing frustrations with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), underscoring divisions in the conference in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Those criticizing McCarthy say his messaging has been inconsistent. They note he’s at times criticized former President Trump for his role in the mob attack on the Capitol, only to reverse course later.
They also say McCarthy has sent different messages over Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House GOP leader, who voted to impeach Trump and now faces calls for her removal from leadership.
McCarthy, who is set to meet with Trump in Florida on Thursday, is also taking heat over Rep. Marjorie Greene (R-Ga.), who has raised questions about the veracity of school shootings and offered remarks calling for violence against Democratic officials. The postings have led to calls for her to lose committee seats and to be removed from Congress.
“It's hard to figure out where he's coming from because one minute he says censure the president and he's responsible for this and the next minute is backing off of that and changing his position,” said one GOP lawmaker, who believes Trump’s rhetoric ahead of the riot deserves to be rebuked.
This lawmaker criticized McCarthy, saying “everything is about his political ambition and not about being a principled leader who is going to lead us to the majority.”
McCarthy’s office declined to comment for this story.
McCarthy, who was a close ally to Trump during his presidency, said Trump bore some responsibility for the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol in a Jan. 13 floor speech arguing against Trump’s impeachment.
But at a Jan. 21 press conference, he told reporters that he didn’t believe Trump “provoked” the crowd “if you listen to what he said at the rally.”
He’s said that Cheney should remain in leadership, but also told journalist Greta Van Susteren: “I support her, but I also have concerns.”
Critics say he’s trying to play both sides of the debate, and that it’s hurting confidence in his leadership.
McCarthy, like GOP leaders before him, faces a difficult task in leading a GOP caucus that is being pulled in different directions by members such as Cheney who want to move away from Trump, and a large number of GOP lawmakers who are solidly in the Trump camp.
The Trump energy is also most pronounced in the GOP grassroots, which has put pressure on every member of McCarthy’s conference.
It’s a dilemma that predates the rise of Trump and that the two GOP leaders before McCarthy, former Speakers John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), also had to deal with.
Yet McCarthy likely faces a greater challenge than his predecessors given the rise of Trump over the last four years, and the schism in the Republican Party following the loss of the White House and Senate majority and the searing attack on the Capitol.
“The GOP is at crossroads and we have a decision to make: will we continue down a path that sows discord or will we begin to rebuild our party? Kevin should consider meeting with members who aren’t into the theatrics of politics and are eager to get stuff done,” one member critical of the conservative House Freedom Caucus told The Hill.
“If he did, I think he would understand just how much support he has when he stands up to members who tend to put their own ambitions before the interest of the American people.”
GOP lawmakers who would like to see McCarthy challenge the right of his conference and Trump warn they are likely to lose seats, not gain them, if he does not.
Some argued that the successes the GOP saw in November in terms of flipping back seats could be at risk in the wake of the insurrection, with some fearing if the party continues to tie itself too closely to Trump it could hurt them in suburban swing districts needed to take back the majority. These voices warn the conference risks shrinking to one inhabited just by those who can win in heavily red districts.
“I do think that [McCarthy is losing the trust of some in the conference] because there are a lot of us who consider ourselves majority makers — it’s easy to be brave in these R+23 seats,” one GOP lawmaker in a competitive district said.
“When you have primaries and generals you have to toe the line, and part of the thing that I think he's forgotten about is yeah we won seats. Why? Because we play our districts, we don't subscribe to the Trump's going to carry us [mentality]. We go back and talk about the things we're accomplishing.”
While conservatives have been at odds with McCarthy in the past, one senior conservative aide said there aren’t currently any major grievances with the California Republican from that faction of the party at this time.
And a number of lawmakers argue that the California Republican is navigating the current circumstances as best as he can in the current climate.
“I think at the end of the day we're going to be in the majority in two years because Democrats are doing ridiculous shit right now,” one member said. “And I think everybody wishes they've done something different for the time between the November election and now. I think he's done a B+ job.”
Multiple GOP lawmakers said they feel McCarthy’s focus on retaining the support of Freedom Caucus members — the group that ousted Boehner and hindered his ability to obtain the Speaker’s gavel in 2015 — could alienate a sizable portion of the conference that has supported him and helped him climb in the leadership ranks.
“Right now, he's trying to please everyone and I think we have some irreconcilable short-term differences. I think he's really playing with fire in that if they do push to depose Liz, there's going to be a conversation about [House Minority Whip] Steve [Scalise (R-La.)] and Kevin too,” one senior GOP lawmaker said.
“They [the Freedom Caucus] will turn on him, and he's trying to stave it off, and maybe he'll be able to successfully do that, but he is losing the confidence, I think, of the majority of the conference right now even if they won’t say it.”
The loss of corporate PAC money toward members who voted to contest the election results could also spur issues for the California Republican.
McCarthy — who voted to object to the certification of both Arizona and Pennsylvania — publicly has dismissed the loss of corporate PAC money, telling reporters he is “not at all” worried about fundraising numbers this quarter. But he’s also done damage control with K Street, suggesting there are concerns.
“He’s trying to calm down donors,” one Republican donor recently said.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.), a member of House GOP leadership, expressed confidence that McCarthy will prevail in the long term.
“He's the most prolific fundraiser, we've ever had, he's our best recruiter. And he's our best strategist. Additionally, if you need proof of that we took back seats when we lost the Senate and we lost the White House — that's not a coincidence, it's not an accident, that's 100 percent Kevin McCarthy.”
During a political call on Wednesday, McCarthy told members of the conference that he would no longer tolerate members publicly attacking each other, adding that he allowed it to go on longer than he should have under the assumption that it would have died down, according to two sources on the call.
“No more attacks to one another. Cut this crap out. If you’re spending more time on Twitter than talking to your constituents, you’re doing it wrong,” he told members.
And in a letter sent to members of his conference on Monday, the GOP leader called for them to unify and “lower the political temperature” and focus on offering a contrast to the Biden administration's policies.