A Young Gun Talks Regime Change

Kevin McCarthy, set to become the No. 3 man in the House GOP, talks to Lloyd Grove about Nancy Pelosi, the looming debt ceiling vote, and how he’ll handle the Democrats.

11.15.10 7:08 AM ET

Rep. Kevin McCarthy claims that House Democrats have no reason to fear retribution for all the misery they inflicted on the Republican minority under Speaker Nancy Pelosi.     

“We’ve always said that if we get the majority, we’re going to run things differently,” the California Republican told me on Friday, calling from his district office in  Bakersfield and trying with limited success to steer clear of schadenfreude. “We’re looking to get this country back to work and control spending, and we think it’s a much better approach to focus on that, and sit down together and discuss it.”

In contrast to Pelosi’s patented bulldozer style of dictating legislation and ramming it through (as with the health-care overhaul and cap-and-trade, two perilous votes that provided ammunition for the defeat of at least 60 House Democrats in the 2010 midterm election), McCarthy promises that regime change will foster a reformed process of openness and transparency.

“They’re shocked that [Pelosi’s] running,” McCarthy says Democrats have told him. “They’re frustrated about the way she has run things as leader.”

“We’ll be making sure all bills will be available to be read for 72 hours before they’re voted on,” he vowed, “and you’ll also have the ability on the floor for any member to offer an amendment to a spending bill.” By contrast, Pelosi excluded Republicans from any meaningful role in the legislative process, and did it so effectively that Minority Leader John Boehner, the presumptive speaker in the next Congress, famously mused that his members were no longer legislators but merely advocates.  

“Sunshine is always the best approach,” McCarthy told me. “We’re going to run the floor in a different way. It will be much more open and we’ll have much more debate…There are no freshmen currently serving in Congress today who’ve ever seen legislation come to the floor under an open rule”—which permits members to offer amendments that haven’t been previously approved by the leadership. “And just because it’s a Republican bill doesn’t guarantee it’s going to pass. If the idea is not good, it won’t get through.” 

If all that sounds too wonderfully heartwarming to correspond with fact-based reality, the 45-year-old McCarthy does speak with a certain newfound authority. He arrived in Congress only four years ago , a rare Republican freshman amid the Democratic onslaught of 2006. On Wednesday, during Speaker Pelosi’s last hurrah presiding over the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, he’ll be elected majority whip. It’s a reward for his role as a leading strategist and (as a founder of the GOP’s Young Guns) chief candidate recruiter in the Republican landslide.     

Like Speaker-to-be Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (a co-founder of the Young Guns, along with presumptive House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan), McCarthy has spent much of the past week burning up the phone lines to secure pledges for Wednesday’s balloting, which will include the five dozen incoming frosh marauders, many of them Tea Partiers with zero respect for Washington’s rarefied traditions and folkways. Although six tight races are still undecided, Republicans will enjoy at least a 239-190 advantage when they take power in January and assume responsibility for governing. 

McCarthy said the so-called Pledge to America, which he oversaw and unveiled five weeks before the election, “will be the roadmap” for their legislative agenda. 

But beyond extending the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts and repealing President Obama’s health-care law—the first eminently doable, the second hardly likely—McCarthy’s pledge is a vague document that extols across-the-board discretionary spending cuts but fails to address the major cause of structural deficits: the growth of federal entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Clearly, McCarthy is a man who wants to keep his options open. He laughed when I asked if his use of the word “roadmap” meant Republicans might push for Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” a politically explosive set of policy prescriptions which do tackle entitlements but are all but impossible to enact with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democrat in the White House. 

McCarthy’s answer, in other words, was a risible no. 

Likewise, he refused to be pinned down when I asked if—as a prudent leader of the governing majority, sworn to safeguard the national interest—he will vote yes on the perennial continuing resolution to raise the debt ceiling. If the resolution were to fail, the federal government would go into default, potentially throwing the fragile U.S. economy into a catastrophic meltdown. 

“The Pledge to America is very clear on what we’re going to do first—job creation, opening up the process and changing the culture of Washington. Those are the first priorities,” McCarthy said. “We also understand that there are obligations that we inherited and it’s important not to ignore those obligations.” 

So, I pressed, he’ll vote to raise the debt ceiling and make sure the government can keep paying its bills? 

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” McCarthy scolded good-naturedly. 

The ascension of McCarthy & Co. is practically a done deal. The only prospect of Republican drama evaporated last week when Tea Party queen Michele Bachmann and other challengers withdrew from the conference chairman’s race in favor of Texan Jeb Hensarling, the leadership’s candidate of choice.

But McCarthy is obviously fascinated, and more than a little amazed, by the intra-party machinations across the aisle.

“Does Pelosi really hang on as leader after losing more than 60 seats? And what does that mean for the rest of the Democrats?” McCarthy marveled. “They have an opportunity to work in a little more bipartisan way, and she’s very, very partisan. It’s almost as if she’s not listening to the American public. If you look at history, the speaker who lost would normally have departed—which is what most people thought she’d do.”

McCarthy—a gregarious pol with a sunny personality—said he’s been hearing from some of his Democratic friends who are confiding their distress at Pelosi’s refusal to go quietly.    

“They’re shocked that she’s running,” he told me. “They’re frustrated about the way she has run things as leader—the partisanship, the punishments for the people who voted against her position. This will empower the progressives to the left in the Democrat Party. Pelosi doesn’t get why the Democrats lost. She thinks it’s just a communications problem.” 

McCarthy had been savoring the possibility of a knock-down, drag-out for minority whip, the No. 2 job, between deposed majority leader Steny Hoyer, a political moderate and longtime Pelosi adversary in the Democratic caucus, and Pelosi ally James Clyburn, a black South Carolinian who served as majority whip. But on Saturday Pelosi brokered a Solomonic deal in which Hoyer would run for whip while Clyburn would take the newly created post of assistant minority leader. Creative tensions might still persist, however. 

“I wouldn’t underestimate Steny,” McCarthy said.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.