Over the next few months, the nation’s borrowing authority and many of its popular but expired tax benefits will need to be extended. Federal transportation funding has to be replenished. And members of both parties want a budget deal for the next two years while averting a government shutdown fueled by abortion politics. If House Speaker John Boehner retired tomorrow instead of at the end of October, could his replacement helm the negotiations with Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama?
The recent past is a weak guide: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will likely be the least-experienced member to become House speaker in about 125 years. He rose to the top of D.C. in a flash—about eight years—up the leadership ladder, focusing less on negotiating compromises and more on building the ranks of Republicans (taking the House in 2010) and his relationships with them, although in his role as his party’s primary vote-counter there were a handful of high-profile face-plants. Others—whether it be Boehner or committee chairs Paul Ryan or Harold Rogers—have been more influential on spending issues, but in the future, McCarthy will probably need to step up.
Those who have known him for a while—from his days leading the GOP minority in the California State Assembly—say McCarthy is up to the task.
Tony Strickland, a former GOP member of the state Assembly and Senate, recalls going in 2003 to Denny’s after playing pickup basketball and asking the then-freshman if he was interested in leading the state GOP in the Assembly. In the middle of the night, McCarthy agreed. They mapped out their strategy on a napkin, and McCarthy became the first freshman to win the post.
“He brings people together,” says Strickland. “He sits and talks to people about what their goals are. … In Sacramento, he would get groups of people together to go to movies, play basketball [and] softball, whatever, just to build camaraderie among folks.
"Likability goes a long way,” he added. "It really felt like you were there as a team instead of just there as an individual.”
As a member of the state’s “Big 5”—the informal group including the governor and legislative leaders—McCarthy was involved in a series of budget negotiations, as well as a major workers' compensation overhaul, which Strickland credits as McCarthy’s greatest achievement, while acknowledging that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s threats to work around the Legislature and push a ballot initiative played a major role in getting Democratic members to the table.
"The fact that we got it through was a huge victory because it was dead on arrival for many years,” says Strickland. "I would say that McCarthy and Schwarzenegger deserve a lot of credit for that.”
But others say McCarthy’s greatest strength was in politics instead of legislating. Those in the governor’s office at the time paint a picture that many Republican House members would welcome: a bottom-up approach to governing.
"This is why I think Kevin is going to make a great speaker: It’s not so much what Kevin’s policy accomplishments were, it was the fact that he empowered his caucus,” says Richard Costigan, who served as the liaison between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature. "Kevin didn’t have to be the one out front. Kevin was the one ... who pushed his caucus and let his members have the success.”
"It was a difficult position for him to be a driver on policy, just because he’s in the minority party and [working] for a Republican governor," adds Rob Stutzman, a former top communications aide to Schwarzenegger.
Of course, some may prefer that style. And Ronald Peters, a professor at the University of Oklahoma specializing in the speakership, notes that while speakers such as Tom Foley, Sam Rayburn, and Boehner all chaired committees, “more often than not” the 20th-century speakers didn’t, rising through the party leadership instead.
Dave Camp, the recently-retired Ways and Means Committee chairman who dropped a major tax-reform bill on his way out, says that the speaker should be hands-off. “The role of the speaker shouldn’t be to write legislation,” Camp says. "You really want a speaker that empowers the committee chairs and the committee members to go to work and to craft legislation. That’s how you build consensus. That’s how you develop a workable agenda that can actually be implemented."
Camp, Strickland, Costigan, Stutzman, and others see McCarthy’s ability to connect with diverse members inside the conference as one of his major selling points as speaker. Camp says that is his “his greatest strength,” and that his experience helping elect many of the members he now leads will be an “invaluable” asset.
McCarthy's desire to recruit others traveled well from Sacramento to Washington. In 2009, Stutzman remembers seeing McCarthy at the Denver airport in the United lounge. "He is poring over all these files of candidates and he starts telling them to me, talking about challengers that he’s helped recruit, people he’s helped raise money,” Stutzman says. "This was before anyone who was sober was even imagining the Republicans could take the House.
"His charm helps him," Stutzman adds, "but he works his ass off."
The question now is whether that sunshine demeanor can turn into votes in a successful agenda. McCarthy’s relative inexperience will be tested by the same forces that divide the Republican Party, as well as Congress and the White House. Cal Dooley, a Democrat who used to serve a California district near McCarthy’s one-time boss Bill Thomas, says that the major question isn’t McCarthy’s background but his conference.
"The composition of the Republican conference hasn’t changed,” says Dooley, who now runs the American Chemistry Council, a powerful trade group. "The question will be, does Kevin have the ability through perhaps stronger personal relationships to hold the Republican conference together on really difficult, challenging issues? I think anyone is going to have a very difficult time unifying the Republican conference, but I think Kevin probably has the skills to do it as well [as]—if not better than—anyone else in the Republican Congress."
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Alex Rogers covers Congress as a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously worked as a political reporter at TIME. He is a native of Bethesda, Maryland and a graduate of Vanderbilt University.