WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., smiled to a national audience and voiced full confidence that his House Republicans needed just a “couple more” votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“I know we’ll get this done,” McCarthy said March 23 on CNN.
Less than 24 hours later, McCarthy and his fellow House Republican leaders suffered a stunning defeat. They didn’t get it done. The votes weren’t there.
The abrupt collapse of the Republicans’ hastily revised bill to repeal and replace the health care law was an extraordinary blow for the House leadership, which had promised for seven years to do it.
The legislative collapse was the highest-profile defeat in what has been a mixed record for McCarthy since he ascended to House leadership.
McCarthy’s future is now at a crossroads, part of a chastened leadership team and faced with a fractured caucus that defies corralling.
This tension between McCarthy’s broad expressions of can-do optimism and the bleaker vote-wrangling reality has marked other chapters of his leadership life. He’s had some strong successes as well as some notable failures. Some of his losses, such as health care, reflect far larger divisions within his party. Others stem from his own missteps.
Now McCarthy and his 236 fellow House Republicans will have to show whether they’ve learned their lessons. They face many other challenges, including overhauling the nation’s tax system, boosting its infrastructure and simply keeping the government from shutting down this month.
And then there’s still the Affordable Care Act.
“We promised that we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” McCarthy said at a news conference last week, days after the bill to do so collapsed.
Even his fellow Republicans doubt that will happen, at least anytime soon.
“I truly believe health care has moved on, and won’t be dealt with again until 2019, if then,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of President Donald Trump’s most ardent congressional supporters, said Thursday. The House Repbulican mood, he said, was marked more by frustration and disappointment.
McCarthy declined an interview request.
First elected to the House in 2006, McCarthy rose quickly to power in the Republican leadership largely because of his ability to raise money and recruit candidates. He ascended to majority leader, the second-ranking position in the House, in 2014.
He has an aptitude for raising and distributing money in support of his fellow Republicans. Fueled by major contributions from financial and real estate interests, his leadership political action committee has spread more than $3.1 million among GOP candidates in the past two House election cycles.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said McCarthy’s personality helped ease tension in the fractured Republican caucus as conservative and moderate factions battled over health care strategy.
“I think he is in a good position to try to find some common ground moving forward because he did not mistreat people,” Rohrabacher said.
Translating people skills into legislative accomplishments is another matter, and unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., McCarthy is not known for immersion in policy details. Facing skepticism from some colleagues, he dropped out of the race in 2015 to replace the retiring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
His success in helping to recruit tea-party-backed candidates helped Republicans win the majority, but many tea party conservatives defied GOP leadership once elected because of their refusal to make compromises.
During his service as the House majority whip, in charge of securing votes, McCarthy seemed to misread the level of Republican support at times. A major farm bill failed on the floor of the House, and the leadership struggled to get a majority of Republicans to support bills.
Democrats were needed to pass key legislation, including relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and the last-minute New Year’s 2013 “fiscal cliff” vote to prevent automatic spending cuts to the Pentagon and other federal agencies.
McCarthy praised a congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack as succeeding in sinking Democrat Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers; comments that, while largely accurate, undercut Republican efforts to present the inquiry as a serious nonpartisan effort.
As the new Congress began in January, McCarthy fumbled the details as he spoke to reporters about a Republican plan to gut the independent congressional ethics office. Within minutes after the news conference, the plan was dropped at McCarthy’s urging.
In March he sent contradictory signals about whether he thought Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from the investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. McCarthy, asked on MSNBC whether Sessions should step aside, talked about the need for trust in the investigation and said, “I think it would easier from that standpoint, yes.”
McCarthy was soon on Fox News saying he was not calling for Sessions to recuse himself.
Still, after years of maneuvering and with the help of a detail-oriented staff, McCarthy last year ushered to completion a significant California water bill that had long been sought by the state’s farmers. The effort succeeded, in part, because he was able to strike a deal with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., while he and his allies persisted in the House.
“It resulted in legislation,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.. The water bill “absolutely” counted as a McCarthy success, he said.
Other work, behind the scenes, demonstrates McCarthy’s continued ability to influence the course of legislation even if the final bill falls short.
For example, several members voiced concerns that older Americans with lower incomes would pay higher insurance premiums under the Republican bill. McCarthy and others in the leadership worked with conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and moderates to increase the tax credit for older Americans. It was enough to secure some vote commitments, though not enough to pass the bill.