As the House returns next week, the relationship between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could face its greatest test yet.
For the first few years of President Joe Biden’s administration, the seniormost Republicans in the House and Senate were in lock step on most issues.
They tag-teamed the left’s multitrillion-dollar social spending plan. They worked together to crush plans for a bipartisan commission on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol siege. And they railed against the president’s bungled pullout of Afghanistan. More recently, McConnell even deferred to the younger McCarthy during negotiations over the debt ceiling, backing up the new speaker every step of the way as he demanded spending cuts in return for increasing the nation’s borrowing cap.
But now, with McCarthy under pressure from conservatives, he and his Kentucky Republican counterpart could quickly find themselves at loggerheads on a government shutdown, a possible Biden impeachment and a massive debate over Ukraine funding.
The issues are already bubbling to the surface.
Upon their return next week, House Republicans under McCarthy plan to continue advancing appropriations bills well below the spending levels the speaker agreed to during bipartisan debt talks with the White House. McConnell, meanwhile, made it clear that he expects House Republicans to stand by their word and swallow larger spending numbers than they’d prefer.
This week, McConnell encouraged his members to back the White House’s request for a $40 billion supplemental spending package funding disaster relief and Ukraine aid — legislation Democrats want to attach to a temporary spending patch averting a Oct. 1 government shutdown. McCarthy, meanwhile, is looking at splitting the two apart and demanding more border funding in return for the Ukraine plus-up, which totals $24 billion.
And while McCarthy continues to flirt with the idea of impeaching Biden, McConnell — who served with Biden in the Senate for many years and has closely negotiated with him in the past — tut-tutted the idea last month.
“I said two years ago, when we had not one but two impeachments, that once we go down this path it incentivizes the other side to do the same thing,” McConnell told the New York Times reporter Carl Hulse. “Impeachment ought to be rare. This is not good for the country.”
McConnell and McCarthy have been at odds before. While McCarthy remains a top ally of former President Donald Trump and speaks to him — and, let’s be honest, fawns over him — McConnell despises the former president, privately views him as dangerous to democracy and has long had concerns about Trump dragging down Republicans lower on the ballot.
McConnell and McCarthy are also split over the recent bipartisan infrastructure and CHIPS bills. While the Kentuckian and a core group of Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass those big-ticket bills — and hand Biden big victories — McCarthy whipped his members against both bills, railing against their price tag and claiming (accurately, it turned out) that they would pave the way for an even pricier Democratic domestic policy bill.
The men are extremely different people — and that’s an understatement. Yes, they’re both political animals at heart, viewing each vote through the lens of whether it helps or hurts GOP prospects in the next election. But they have wildly different ways of doing that.
Where McCarthy is chatty, gabs with reporters and cheerily schmoozes with his members about their families, kids and even dogs, McConnell is reserved and at times taciturn — saying little and keeping his thoughts to himself. Even his deputies joke that being on his leadership team is like flying first class in a plane: You get to sit up front, sure, but McConnell is sealed off in the cockpit and you have no idea what he’s doing.
Their political situations are night and day. McCarthy is constantly under threat from the right, which constantly rumbles about ousting him from the speakership. McConnell’s members — most of them, anyway — are so loyal that even amid scrutiny from his recent health situation, they’re sticking behind him, full stop. Consequently, McConnell often focuses on what he likes to call the “long game,” thinking months and years ahead. McCarthy, meanwhile, tends to spend each day putting out a different fire.
The two men aren’t particularly close, but maintain a cordial relationship and meet regularly when Congress is in session. They started working closely together after Paul Ryan retired as speaker and McCarthy became GOP leader.
When Democrats impeached Trump in 2019, the two offices shared information about what was happening behind closed doors, strategized about how to poke holes in the Democrats’ case and privately bemoaned the unpredictable president making their lives miserable. When McCarthy was amid his epic battle for the speakership, McConnell lent public support, and the two have met regularly ever since to plot strategy.
Their differences might be more obvious than usual this month, but don’t expect any big public blowups between the two leaders.
For one, they still share some common ground. The two might split on Ukraine funding, for instance, but they’re both in favor of the additional fortifications at the U.S.-Mexico border that McCarthy is pushing for. And, as political tacticians, each knows how to use the dynamics in the other chamber to their own advantage.
Most importantly: Both men have made it a point not to tell the other what to do or how to run their respective chambers.
But with tensions building — and sparring already underway between the two chambers’ GOP rank-and-file — those niceties are going to be put to the test like never before.
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The interplay between the two most powerful Republicans on Capitol Hill has thus far been marked by agreement. That may be about to change.