House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy took to Fox News primetime last week and dinged his counterpart across the Capitol: Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.
Republicans are “wrong” if they want to cut a year-end spending deal with Democrats, McCarthy told Fox News host Laura Ingraham, saying they should instead punt the issue until 2023 when Republicans take control of the House.
“Does that include McConnell?” she asked.
“Yes,” McCarthy said. “Why would you want to work on anything if we have the gavel inside Congress?”
McCarthy’s comment blindsided McConnell, according to multiple senators. While the House GOP leader had signaled privately – including at a White House meeting – that he’d be open to a large spending deal to finish this year’s business, Republicans were not expecting him to take aim at McConnell even if he publicly came out against the package. But as McConnell continually worked behind the scenes to cut a massive funding deal – effectively clearing McCarthy’s decks for the next Congress – the House GOP leader increasingly voiced his strong opposition against it.
“Hell no,” McCarthy told House Republicans about his position on the spending package – just a few hours before McConnell declared on Tuesday that the deal in the works was “broadly appealing.” House Republicans were the lone caucus not to endorse Tuesday night’s spending agreement backed by top House and Senate Democrats and Senate GOP leaders.
It was just the latest split between two GOP leaders who have been at odds over a range of issues this past Congress. Bills to bolster the nation’s infrastructure, new gun safety programs and a ramp up of semi-conductor chip production all became law with McConnell’s support and over McCarthy’s opposition.
In the last two months, as McCarthy has courted the right-wing of his conference to win the speakership, the split has persisted, with McConnell backing legislation to head off a nationwide railway strike and McCarthy opposing it. As McCarthy warned against providing a “blank check” to Ukraine, McConnell voiced strong support for helping funnel US dollars to beat back Russian aggression – a major driver behind his push to find a deal now on a funding bill with tens of billions to help Ukraine.
And now as Congress is wrapping up its work for the year to fund federal agencies through next fall, McCarthy and McConnell are headed on a collision course, underscoring the competing political forces in their respective conferences that the two will have to work through next year when the GOP takes power in the House.
“It’s a House-Senate dynamic, and the conference in the House, obviously, a lot of times can be in a different place than the conference in the Senate,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who serves as McConnell’s top deputy.
Asked if he were aware that McConnell felt blindsided by McCarthy’s Fox News rejoinder, Thune said: “Yeah,” while adding: “I think he’s reflecting what’s happening in the House, and he’s, as best I can (tell), trying to make sure he’s representative of the views of the House Republicans.”
McConnell, for his part, didn’t let on any frustration with McCarthy, telling CNN: “I like Kevin, and I’m pulling for him to be elected speaker.”
McCarthy, whose office declined to comment, pointed to remarks he made after the November White House meeting where he said that continuing resolutions to fund the government “are not where we want to be.” But the California Republican also warned that a short-term patch to kick the issue until the new Congress might be necessary if Democrats “don’t want to work with us,” adding: “We can get this work done in January as well.”
Tension between the House and Senate is as old as the republic itself, given that the fast-moving House can approve legislation by a simple majority and the slow-moving Senate can be ground to a halt by a single senator and needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. In the new Congress, McConnell will lead a 49-seat Senate minority while McCarthy will have 222 Republican seats in the House. If McCarthy wins the speakership on January 3, he can only afford to lose four GOP votes to pass legislation along party lines.
But most of the bills that House Republicans will usher through the chamber will almost certainly be ignored by the Democratic-led Senate. And only major fiscal issues – such as raising the debt limit and funding the government – must be approved by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Joe Biden to avoid the potential of an economic calamity. Those issues will present a major test of the McConnell-McCarthy alliance.
Indeed, the debt limit is poised to be breached sometime next year, and already a major battle is shaping up to raise it, even as McConnell has long found circuitous ways to avert default. In the meantime, Senate Republicans are eager to finish up this year’s funding package in the final days of the current Congress controlled by Democrats, a move that would take a major battle over a potential government shutdown off the table early next year.
“Everybody’s probably got a reason at the moment to oppose it,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican and top GOP appropriator, said of McCarthy. “They may oppose it on philosophical grounds, maybe opposes it on political grounds.”
Off the House floor on Tuesday, McCarthy sidestepped a question about McConnell’s support for the emerging funding package and instead pointed his finger back at Democrats.
“Well, my message is to Democrats who want to spend more,” McCarthy said when asked about McConnell. “I wouldn’t be adding more money after all that they compounded on and all that they spent, especially just last year.”
But McConnell defended the bill when asked about the opposition from fellow Republicans.
“We’re on defense,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “We’re dealing with the cards we were dealt.” He said that they were able to ramp up funding for defense programs and hold the line against Democrats’ push to raise money for other domestic programs.
McConnell added that the package is “is far and away the best we could do given the fact that we don’t control the floor or the government.”
Yet some Republicans believe McCarthy is privately rooting for the omnibus bill to pass, even though he plans to vote against it publicly.
That’s because McCarthy, like many other House Republicans, doesn’t want to deal with the threat of a government shutdown immediately upon entering their new majority. Funding the government is likely to be a huge challenge with a divided government and a razor-thin House majority where an emboldened right flank is already making demands about the border, among other issues.
But as McCarthy struggles to shore up support for his speaker’s bid, he is facing immense pressure from his right flank to take a harder line on a number of policy issues, including on the spending package. Hardliners want to wait to fund the government until the new year when the House GOP will be in charge and thus have more leverage in the process.
As one senior GOP lawmaker put it: “Our best bet is that they clear the decks for us and we raise our hands in protest.”
Even as McCarthy signals his staunch opposition to the massive spending package, some of his critics are complaining about how the process is playing out.
“You’ve got Mitch McConnell preparing to roll the House right now on additional trillions of dollars in spending,” said Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican and the chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. “Tell me how something changes here. I’m interested to hear, but right now, I don’t see anything changing.”
House GOP leadership is formally whipping against the one-week short-term spending patch to extend this Friday’s deadline until December 23, and Republican sources believe leaders will likely whip against the omnibus bill as well. McConnell is likely to vote for both packages.
One Republican lawmaker pointed out that McConnell and McCarthy are dealing with different conferences and political dynamics, which explains their sometimes conflicting approaches.
“They have different styles, different flavors of their conferences,” the member said. “The dynamic is different. McCarthy is fighting for his political life.”
The ongoing divide between the House and Senate GOP, while nothing new, has been a topic of conversation among members who have recently huddled with McCarthy as they plot their new majority.
“It’s always a concern,” said Rep. Kevin Hern, the next chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
But others say the differences will work themselves out, somehow.
“Bicameral tension has been a feature of our Constitutional republic,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican. “Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are gonna be just fine.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.