McConnell, McCarthy split raises questions about ability to work together

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have drifted apart over the past two years, raising questions about whether they’ll be able work together if Republicans win back the House.

Republicans who know both men say they have a good relationship and continue to meet regularly, but also acknowledge their different jobs and constituencies will invariably drive them apart publicly.  

Working hand in glove next year also is complicated by their strikingly different relationships with former President Trump, who remains the dominant force in Republican politics.  

McConnell’s willingness to compromise with Democrats on bills that he sees as moving the country forward has drawn fierce criticism from Trump over the past two years.  

McCarthy, by contrast, has had the luxury of opposing almost everything Democrats bring to the floor, without having to worry about causing a shutdown or a default on the federal debt.  

All that will change if Republicans win the House and McCarthy is elected Speaker, giving him control over the House agenda.  

“There’s a lot of tension because they have very different views toward Trump and different visions for the future of the Republican Party,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.  

“McCarthy is more of a populist while McConnell is an establishment Republican, so that leads to policy differences on a range of issues,” he added. 

McConnell helped fashion a compromise in December that allowed Democrats to raise the debt limit through the Senate with a simple majority vote.  

McCarthy and other House GOP leaders, by comparison, made raising the limit harder by saying they would not vote for such a measure even if it were attached to popular defense legislation.  

This is already fueling anxiety that Congress is heading for another debt-limit standoff next year, with Republicans potentially in control of the House this time. 

In 2011, the nation came perilously close to defaulting on its obligations with a Democrat in the White House and a GOP House. It prompted Standard and Poor’s to downgrade the nation’s credit rating.  

A Republican leadership aide said any talk of strained relations between the two leaders is overblown.  

“They have a good relationship and meet regularly,” said the aide, who explained that McConnell and McCarthy try to meet at least once every congressional work period and rotate meetings between their two offices, using a private hallway to travel between the two chambers.  

Publicly, however, McConnell has rarely acknowledged his House counterpart, and McCarthy has done nothing to defend McConnell from Trump. 

McCarthy stayed silent when Trump declared that McConnell had a “death wish” after he cut a deal with Democrats to fund the government until mid-December and disparaged his wife, Elaine Chao , who served as Trump’s secretary of Transportation, as “China loving … Coco Chow.”

Since denouncing Trump on the Senate floor in February 2021, McConnell has become a symbol of establishment GOP opposition to the ex-president’s special brand of populism. McCarthy has carefully tended his relationship with Trump to avoid angering the populist conservative faction of the House GOP conference.

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns, said the two leaders “have a good working relationship,” but he acknowledged they “have to maneuver around each other” because of “the vast differences of their conferences.”  

“McCarthy’s conference is much different in its reaction to all events than McConnell’s, and some of that is rooted in natural differences between the Senate and the House, but some of it is also rooted in the differences in the personalities that each of them are managing and their policy preferences,” he said.  

He added it is easy to “overread” their relationship since “the biggest issue is the tint of the conference when it comes to Trump.” 

McConnell’s office noted a remark he made to another press outlet this summer when asked about his relationship with McCarthy.  

“No one is pulling harder than I am for him to win back the House so we can stop the Biden administration’s liberal agenda,” McConnell said.  

McConnell and McCarthy have split on several of the biggest bipartisan bills to become law during President Biden’s first two years in office.  

McConnell voted for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, gun violence legislation responding to the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act. McCarthy voted against all three, slamming legislation to help the nation’s semiconductor industry as a “blank check” and “corporate welfare to be handed out to whoever President Biden wants.”

The two leaders diverged at the start of this Congress when McConnell urged members against supporting objections to Biden’s victory in the Electoral College while McCarthy joined more than 140 of his House GOP colleagues in voting to overturn the election results.  

They also adopted different strategies in response to the fallout of Jan. 6, 2021, with McConnell calling Trump’s actions before the riot at the Capitol “a disgraceful dereliction of duty.” He said there was “no question” that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack. 

McCarthy initially told fellow House Republicans in a private call that Trump bore some responsibility and that he would recommend that Trump resign. He then changed course and swiftly rallied to Trump’s defense. McCarthy visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort later that January in a public — and widely criticized — show of loyalty. 

Republican strategists and aides said McCarthy felt compelled to quickly make amends with Trump because he worried that his bid to become Speaker could become derailed. 

Unlike the Senate, where McConnell only needs a majority vote of his own conference to become majority leader if Republicans win back the upper chamber, McCarthy needs a majority vote of the entire House to become Speaker. That means he can afford only a few defections in his conference on the Speaker’s vote, depending on the size of his majority.

This has been a key factor driving McConnell and McCarthy apart since Trump lost reelection.  

Despite the different pressures they face, Republican strategists predict McCarthy and McConnell will be able to find a way to work together to keep the government funded and the nation from defaulting on its debt if Republicans seize control of one or both chambers.  

Vin Weber, a Republican strategist, said McCarthy knows he’ll have to show he can work with McConnell and Democrats to govern to increase Republicans’ chances of holding onto the majority, should they win it next month, and defeat Biden in 2024.

“They are different, not incompatible in my view,” he said. “McConnell is very much an institutionalist but he’s also a strong partisan. McCarthy is also a strong partisan.” 

Previous Republican Speakers John Boehner (Ohio) and Paul Ryan (Wis.) also faced major headaches managing different Republican House factions.  

Weber said McCarthy “will want to do whatever is necessary to stay in the majority and part of that is not getting into a fight with Mitch McConnell.”

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