Bringing people together.
That’s how House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to approach the job as he settles into his new role as the top Republican in the House, and perhaps its top peacemaker.
McCarthy told Spectrum News he's hoping to channel another prominent Republican leader in his efforts to keep his conference together: Abraham Lincoln.
"'A team of rivals,'" McCarthy said. "You watch what I had to do, people who didn't support [me], a nation that's divided - we’re nowhere divided the way that was, but people bring up questions about that. Always looking towards the future and knowing tomorrow's going to be better than today, and then looking at how to bring the nation together."
In another nod to Lincoln, though not one he might have intended or hoped for, McCarthy's 15 rounds to secure the speaker’s gavel in January was the most since before the Civil War.
As he looks to make an impact during his tenure as Speaker of the House, and with an eye toward growing his majority in 2024, the balancing act for McCarthy, who only has a five-seat majority, is just beginning.
McCarthy said that ensuring that every voice in his conference is heard is key to maintaining unity, especially with a razor-thin majority.
“The thing you have to do is you respect all the different views in the conference, and you bring people together," McCarthy explained. "So as long as somebody has a say, that should be fair."
While appeasing his caucus is important, it's also important for McCarthy to maintain his own autonomy in the role.
“At the end of the day, you have to make a decision, but as long as you're able to have your input and you listen to everybody, it's easier to bring people together," he said. "Using your ears never gets you in trouble, right?”
And so far, the approach seems to be working, with even some of his biggest detractors offering McCarthy kudos for his leadership.
"I would give Speaker McCarthy a very strong ‘A’ for the work he has done so far," Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the final holdouts against McCarthy during the speakership vote, told Spectrum News in February. "It is to his great credit that he’s now embraced some of the changes that we wanted to bring to the House of Representatives."
Some of those hard-fought changes could prove perilous, like lowering the threshold to force a snap vote to remove McCarthy as speaker. Others, like turning over footage from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, resulted in scorn, even from some members of his own party.
And others, like his strategy over the debt ceiling negotiations? The outcome of that remains to be seen.
One question is omnipresent throughout McCarthy's tenure as speaker: Is he beholden to the conservative wing of his party in exchange for his power?
“A lot of people will say a lot of different things. But you watch how I govern, watch the successes we've already had,” said McCarthy, listing off the creation of a Select Committee on China, the "reforming of the Intel Committee" – In January, he booted California Democrats Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff from the panel – and the rejection of an overhaul to the Washington, D.C., criminal code, which enjoyed bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.
“We need everybody to be able to make sure we can move something through [the House], so nobody's treated more special than somebody else. But every single person is respected and their view is respected,” McCarthy added.
Some of those changes McCarthy embraced at the beginning of his tenure included lowering the threshold for what’s known as a "motion to vacate the chair" – where a member calls for a vote to remove a sitting speaker – down to one.
Back in 2015, a motion to vacate was introduced by then-Rep. Mark Meadows, a member of the Freedom Caucus, to try and force the removal of then-Speaker John Boehner. It was largely a symbolic move, with Meadows never actually forcing the vote and Boehner retiring later that year.
In 2019, under then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the rule was changed to make it harder for members to push that motion.
Other concessions reportedly included that the McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund would no longer spend in primaries for safe GOP seats and that House Freedom Caucus members would get more seats on the powerful House Oversight Committee.
McCarthy stands by those decisions, telling Spectrum News that he “never gave away anything.”
“The rules package that we passed, only one thing changed -- from five votes to one vote,” said McCarthy about the motion to vacate.
He also pointed out that rank-and-file members now have a pathway to bring legislation to the floor without getting his approval first and more flexibility to suggest changes to bills before they are voted on than under other recent speakers.
“The entire speakership, Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, they never had an open rule, meaning any member can offer an amendment," he said. "And that builds frustration.”
So far, McCarthy’s conference is strongly behind him.
“I had not appreciated how difficult the job of being speaker is, and yet he's always friendly,” California Republican Rep. Jay Obernolte, who says McCarthy has kept up his weekly lunches with the state's GOP delegation.
“Sometimes he's a little late, but every week, he's there. And that's something that I really value, being able to sit down and get his opinion on what's happening,” explained Olbernolte. “It's amazing to me how hard he works to keep us functioning as a legislative body.”
“A lot of people are not willing to bury the hatchet the way Kevin McCarthy has been able to do,” said Rep. Mike Garcia. “A lot of people go scorched earth and burn bridges and never look back on those relationships. Kevin can have some of the most heated discussions with someone and then still go back and want to rebuild that bridge with them. Maybe not agree on the underlying issue, but still move forward in the interest of the country.”
Even some Democrats, like Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., have expressed positive sentiments about McCarthy.
"Speaker McCarthy and myself have agreed to disagree, strongly, on a whole host of issues, but try not to be disagreeable for the good of the functioning of our institution and the country," Jeffries, who assumed the top Democratic post in the House this year, said. "I look forward to trying to proceed in that regard."
Jeffries called out Republicans where he sees fit, from abortion rights to McCarthy’s release of the Jan. 6 footage to Fox News, but he's so far tried to avoid blasting his counterpart in the press by name.
It’s a far cry from the frosty-at-best relationship Pelosi had with McCarthy when he resided in the minority. That’s not by accident, according to McCarthy.
"We built a good rapport with Hakeem Jeffries, different than the relationship I ever had with Nancy Pelosi," he said. "And taking this job as speaker I decided, I'm going to treat Hakeem the way I wanted to be treated.
"Everything doesn't have to be partisan," he added. "There's a lot of things that happen here that are just the institution itself, and I treat him equal like that."
McCarthy said sometimes the two leaders meet in the very same room where Spectrum News interviewed him -- his office overlooking the National Mall -- to discuss upcoming votes or issues.
“[It] doesn't mean we're going to change our votes, but we can respect one another," the California Republican explained. "He's the leader of the other side, [and] I want to give them information on things that are happening.”
That kind of across the aisle communication from the speaker was not a surprise for Rep. Lou Correa, a fellow Californian who served with McCarthy in the state legislature.
“We work across the aisle as members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans. You don't see it, the press doesn't cover it a lot, but we actually work together,” he told Spectrum News. “And I know that Kevin knows it. His job is to work with us, work with the Senate, work with the president to make sure we do what's best for all America.”
Praise from Democrats like Jeffries doesn't mean it's been sunshine and rainbows for McCarthy with Democrats so far.
Reps. Schiff and Swalwell did not mince words when McCarthy blocked them from the Intel Committee; ditto for Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee in a GOP-led effort.
"It’s disappointing but not surprising that Kevin McCarthy has capitulated to the right wing of his caucus, undermining the integrity of the Congress, and harming our national security in the process," the trio of lawmakers charged in a statement in January. "He struck a corrupt bargain in his desperate, and nearly failed, attempt to win the Speakership, a bargain that required political vengeance against the three of us."
Swalwell accused McCarthy of "political vengeance," with Schiff saying the move "shows the weakness of his speakership."
The vote to remove Omar only narrowly passed, with McCarthy winning over at least one holdout by pledging to launch a bipartisan effort to establish due process for committee removals moving forward.
McCarthy will need to work with the Senate and with President Joe Biden to reach an agreement before the summer on raising the debt ceiling. The nation is currently using what the Treasury Department considers “extraordinary measures” to avoid default on its debts. But those will only last so long.
While Biden wants to raise the limit without any strings attached, House Republicans are demanding he agree to cut government spending before they’ll take up the issue. And Senate Republican leaders have firmly said that any negotiation at this point must be made between Biden and McCarthy.
Biden and other key Democratic lawmakers have not been shy about pushing McCarthy to put forward a budget plan in order to advance negotiations on the debt ceiling. McCarthy did not commit to a timeline of when Republicans would present a counter-proposal when he spoke to Spectrum News last week.
After releasing his budget proposal last week, the president challenged McCarthy to do the same: "I'm ready to meet with the speaker any time – tomorrow if he has his budget. Lay it down. Tell me what you want to do, I’ll show you what I want to do, see what we can agree on."
"Enough with the dodging, enough with the excuses, show us your plan," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "And then show us how it’s going to get 218 votes on your side of the aisle."
It’s a battle that’s been fought in Washington before. While the country has never failed to meet its financial obligations, Catholic University professor Matt Green says McCarthy has his work cut out for him in order to come to an agreement that appeases everyone – which could prove perilous.
“We have seen those issues crop up before and they have caused serious problems for speakers in the past, in some cases, even helped bring about their early end as speaker," Green said.
Green is the author of “Legislative Hardball," an examination of the rise of the Freedom Caucus, and co-author of two other books on congressional leadership. He described McCarthy as a people person, and even more of a social animal than the typical politician. “One of the things that that means is that he's very good at knowing the members of his party and knowing where they stand, what their positions are, and being able to communicate with them.”
But knowing what members want and always being able to deliver are two different things. “Sometimes you just have to tell people, ‘I'm sorry, this is gonna make you mad, but you can't have what you want,’” said Green. “I think it's going to be really interesting to see how McCarthy deals with some really difficult decisions he’ll have to make as leader. And sometimes people will be mad at him. That's part of being speaker.”
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of California Rep. Jay Obernolte's name.