My Kevin' Emerges as Bridge Between Trump and GOP

By Kristina Peterson and Louise Radnofsky Features Dow Jones Newswires

When President Donald Trump hosted leaders of a communications company moving their headquarters from Singapore to the U.S. in the Oval Office on Thursday, a single lawmaker was present: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

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Mr. Trump later hosted other Republican leaders to officially congratulate them on the release of the House GOP tax bill. But he celebrated early with Mr. McCarthy.

"He's working very hard on tax cuts, in fact, so hard, I'm surprised to see you here," Mr. Trump said, praising the California Republican for zipping over from a "great press conference."

Two years ago, Mr. McCarthy's political career appeared to be flatlining. In the wake of a television interview in which he implied political motives in the House hearings into an attack on a U.S. compound in Libya, Mr. McCarthy pulled out of the race to replace Rep. John Boehner as speaker.

These days, Mr. McCarthy has regained his influence, buoyed by what many Republicans describe as the strongest personal connection with Mr. Trump and his top advisers of any GOP leader.

And while the GOP tax plan unveiled Thursday was crafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas), its passage will depend in large part on Mr. McCarthy.

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"We lean on Kevin constantly for understanding where his conference is," including on the coming tax-overhaul debate, as well as an immigration policy fight to come, said Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs. Mr. Short's relationship with Mr. McCarthy dates back almost a decade to his time as chief of staff for the House Republican Conference -- headed by then-Rep. Mike Pence, now the vice president.

The six-term congressman, who once used a $5,000 lottery winning to open a deli, has carved out a niche on Capitol Hill by capitalizing on his interpersonal skills. His ability to take the temperature of the House GOP has helped defuse some of its tensest moments, even if the group is still searching for a major legislative win this year. While he's never been considered a policy heavyweight, the less-scrutinized, second-in-command post is turning out to be the best position to maximize his other strengths.

"He feels to some degree empowered and freed by his determination not to run for speaker," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), his Democratic counterpart.

Mr. McCarthy, 52 years old, has already been involved in helping the House GOP clear key hurdles that threatened to clutter the tax bill's path.

Last week, the entire California GOP delegation voted for the Republican budget, despite unresolved concerns over how the party's tax plan will treat the state and local tax deduction. That is a big issue for lawmakers in states with high taxes and living costs, including the most affluent parts of California, New York and New Jersey.

Mr. McCarthy's ability to deliver all his home-state votes -- 14 including him -- was important as the budget measure passed on a 216-212 vote. It isn't clear whether the California GOP, which gathers in Mr. McCarthy's office for a weekly lunch, usually Mexican food, will splinter on the tax legislation itself, a much tougher vote.

On Tuesday, Mr. McCarthy sought to shift the blame onto the governors of high-tax states for creating the tax burden in the first place.

"I was happy to hear about the governors' newfound concerns for the ridiculous high-tax burdens we have," Mr. McCarthy said on a call with reporters.

The president and majority leader talk frequently, with Mr. McCarthy walking Mr. Trump through the House's legislative process and working to establish reasonable expectations on how quickly the chamber can move, according to House GOP lawmakers and aides. Mr. McCarthy's experience in the California State Assembly working with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has left him better equipped than most to deal with a celebrity president, lawmakers said.

"Kevin's a relationships guy, which is exactly what Donald Trump is," said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.), an early supporter of the president. "The relationship comes before the policy."

Mr. McCarthy also had played a key role in accurately conveying legislative realities to the president, Mr. Short said. He identified wavering lawmakers who could be effectively cajoled by the White House at various stages during the GOP's bid to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which passed the House on a second attempt but failed to secure majority support in the Senate.

"It's just another phone call for him in a way," said Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.), who has been with Mr. McCarthy when he has fielded calls from Mr. Trump. But he said that the tax bill would be a political burden even for Mr. McCarthy. "Now I hope he fails, but he's good at what he does," Mr. Welch said.

One reflection of Mr. McCarthy's ties to the White House is the access he has been granted.

In September, he was the only other lawmaker present at a meeting of the top four Hill leaders with Mr. Trump where a deal on raising the government's borrowing limit was struck. In early October, he traveled with Mr. Trump on Air Force One to Las Vegas after the mass shooting.

Days later, Mr. McCarthy took Mr. Pence on a swing through California, where they raised $5 million in three days. During that trip, Mr. McCarthy worked with Mr. Pence to arrange private meetings with California Republicans and for some of them to ride on Air Force Two, Mr. Short said.

He has tapped those connections, as well as his relationship with Ivanka Trump, a daughter of the president, and her husband Jared Kushner, to try to bring a wider circle of House Republicans into contact with the administration.

"To have a seat at the table, to know it's our agenda that we want to move forward, is great," said Rep. Mimi Walters (R., Calif.) who attended a meeting with Ms. Trump in Mr. McCarthy's office in early June.

Conservatives who have long tangled with GOP leaders say they appreciate Mr. McCarthy's willingness to hear their concerns. Still, Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen conservative GOP lawmakers, said they would like more input in the shaping of major legislation. The tax bill, for instance, had been closely held by Messrs. Ryan and Brady.

"We ought to have a lot more specifics a lot earlier in the process -- on any major piece of legislation," Mr. Meadows said. But Mr. McCarthy, he said, is "an honest broker."

Mr. McCarthy's grasp of the personal details of lawmakers' lives, families and district dynamics is considered unparalleled within the House. He not only follows Mrs. Walters' children on Instagram, but comments on their posts, the lawmaker said.

Although Mr. Ryan speaks often to Mr. Trump as well, Mr. McCarthy has a less-complicated back story with the president. Back in March 2016, Mr. McCarthy was predicting in speeches that Mr. Trump could help the House GOP pick up seats that fall. In fact, the House GOP lost six seats, but that was fewer than many expected.

And while Mr. McCarthy called for Mr. Trump to apologize after video from 2005 was released last October showing Mr. Trump, then the GOP presidential nominee, talking about kissing and groping women without their consent, he still believed Mr. Trump could win the election. Mr. Ryan was deeply offended by the video and said days later that he wouldn't defend or campaign with Mr. Trump.

Later, Mr. Trump acknowledged the support of "my Kevin" in a speech just days before his inauguration.

"Kevin would call me in the heat of battle... and I'd be fighting with Paul [Ryan.]" Mr. Trump said. "Kevin during the heat was there for us and I appreciate it."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 05, 2017 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)