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McCarthy and McConnell, seen as polar opposites, must lead a fractious GOP

Colleagues say their styles are completely different. But fiscal showdowns on the horizon mean the duo will need to work together.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol in 2022. Colleagues say their relationship is professional but not close. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
10 min

Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have a nearly 25-year age gap and political styles that are described by their colleagues as polar opposites, with one a glad-handing leader and the other a more sphinx-like strategist.

But the ability of the two Republican leaders — who associates say have a good, professional but not close relationship — to work together now takes on new significance as several high-stakes fiscal showdowns loom in Congress.

McCarthy, who eked out a victory in the speaker’s race earlier this month, faces the challenge of leading a vanishingly small House majority whose far-right members have threatened to default on the nation’s debt obligations in order to enact steep federal spending cuts. McConnell, in the minority in the Democratic-controlled Senate, leads a caucus that is generally more averse to such brinkmanship, raising the possibility that Republicans on opposite ends of the Capitol will find themselves at odds in the coming months.

The duo’s colleagues say they could not be more different. McCarthy, a prolific fundraiser and Californian leading a majority for the first time, is a “cheerleader,” backslapping type, said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who has served in both chambers with both men. McConnell, who recently became the longest-serving Senate party leader in history, keeps his cards notoriously close to his vest and has a reputation as a master strategist.

“Mitch is more of an enigma,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.). “I saw him smile once back in 2017.”

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Still, both men have a voracious interest in politics and a relentless focus on winning elections — the common denominator in their relationship.

“I think they’re kindred spirits in a political sense,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who also has served in both chambers with both men. “They’re just in a different spot.”

How they operate

Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called McCarthy “affable” and McConnell more reserved. But they already have a solid foundation, he added, given that McCarthy has led House Republicans since 2019. “It’s not like these guys are just getting to know each other. They’ve been working together for years.”

McConnell used to meet weekly with Speakers John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan, alternating offices each week, but his meetings with McCarthy have been less frequent, as both men have been in the minority in their chambers and the pandemic disrupted the congressional schedule, according to former and current aides, who, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal matters. They plan to meet more frequently now that McCarthy is speaker.

Ryan, who was speaker when McCarthy was majority leader, and McConnell became friends when they ran the House and the Senate, respectively, going out to dinner with their wives frequently and enjoying a mutual trust that came in part from how intertwined their staffs were. (Ryan’s chief of staff at the time had previously worked for McConnell.)

McConnell and McCarthy are not as close, but a former Senate aide said the minority leader doesn’t need a close personal connection to work well with his counterparts.

“People get way too hung up on buddy movies in Congress, and with McConnell that’s just not a thing,” the former aide said. “He wants to get the work done, he wants to win.”

Ryan, however, said the close relationship was “helpful” in working well together.

Colleagues say McCarthy and McConnell respect each other, despite their differences.

“They have very different styles,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a McCarthy ally. “It’s my hope they’ll have a collaborative relationship to put us on the right track to win in ’24. And that has to develop over time.”

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McConnell and McCarthy declined to comment for this article through their aides, though both have said publicly that they work well together.

The Trump factor

Although both men’s strength lies in their focus on raw political strategy, not policy, McConnell and McCarthy have very different relationships with the leader of the Republican Party, former president Donald Trump, which led them in different directions in last year’s elections.

McCarthy publicly thanked Trump for helping him secure the speaker’s job with phone calls to holdouts after a historic 14 failed votes earlier this month. In contrast, McConnell has not spoken to the former president in more than two years, since Trump’s refusal to accept his 2020 loss, and has said he believes that Trump’s influence in boosting more extreme Senate candidates contributed to Republicans’ underwhelming performance in the midterms. The standoff has drawn many insults from the former president.

“Something is wrong with McConnell, and those Republican Senators that Vote with him. PRIMARY THEM ALL!!!” Trump posted on social media recently.

McCarthy was skeptical of McConnell’s choice to cut Trump off entirely, and believes that he ended up with better candidates in the midterms than McConnell did because he continued to work with the ex-president and shape his influence on GOP primaries, according to a person familiar with McCarthy’s thinking. (Several more-extreme House Republican candidates lost in competitive seats, however, including Joe Kent in Washington and John Gibbs in Michigan.)

Their dynamic will be shaped by McCarthy’s tenuous hold on his speakership, which is likely to limit how much he can demand or deliver in negotiations with the Senate or the White House, which are both controlled by Democrats. While most Senate Republicans would probably back the House GOP on issues such as border security and inflation, any spending cuts that target the Pentagon or moves to default on the nation’s debt obligations would most likely fall flat, leaving House Republicans without support.

McConnell needs to understand the difficulties McCarthy faces in keeping his small House majority together, Ryan said. “His job is harder than mine [was],” Ryan said of the speaker. “No two ways about it.”

Adding to the potential difficulty, McConnell has become a villain for some of the harder-right lawmakers in the House who echo Trump and resent McConnell’s vote for a $1.7 trillion federal funding bill in December. McCarthy has done little to tamp down some of that rhetoric as he seeks to shore up support on his right flank.

“There’s probably a group of people who need to realize that Kevin McCarthy is not Mitch McConnell,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) said after one of the many failed speaker’s votes this month. “So I think that’s probably one of the bigger albatrosses that hangs over [McCarthy], being associated with the not-conservative actions of people like Mitch.”

McCarthy’s balancing act

Unlike McConnell, McCarthy has never before led his conference while in the majority, and he has rarely been involved in hammering out the bipartisan appropriations and other deals that have emerged over the past three years, given House Republicans’ near-unified opposition to them.

“He was never really in a position where he had to line up votes as a matter of life or death because … he was in the minority trying to hold things together,” said former congressman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.).

Now that McCarthy has nabbed the job, some in his caucus are urging him to take a hard line against McConnell and Senate Democrats in fiscal negotiations. McConnell has made it clear he does not believe that the nation should default on its debt obligations, while McCarthy has agreed to push for spending cuts using a potential default as leverage.

“Drive a hard bargain,” one of the initial McCarthy holdouts, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), said when asked how he wanted the speaker to approach his relationship with McConnell. “He’s got to take a hard line.”

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McCarthy has already started talking tough about Senate Republicans. In December, he said he would block the priorities of Republican senators who backed the omnibus spending bill — a threat that rang hollow to many GOP senators at the time and now, after McCarthy’s tenuous hold on his caucus became clear, is generating even less fear. After Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), speaking to Punchbowl News, compared the incident to a quick-passing “spring thunderstorm” and reminded McCarthy that House legislation will not necessarily pass a Democrat-controlled Senate, McCarthy fired back in a news conference that the Senate had not accomplished “anything” and should not lecture him.

“I sat down with all the Republican senators and talked to them about ways they could be more productive,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy has often said in the past that the Senate is like a country club and the House is like a truck stop — and has suggested he prefers the more populist chaos of his chamber.

Yet behind closed doors, the tone is friendlier. When McCarthy visited the Senate Republican lunch last month, McConnell began the meeting by saying the whole group was pulling for him to become speaker. And McCarthy did not reiterate any of his threats, instead saying that he “respects the differences in the Senate and the House, and he knows we’ve got to have consensus over here of 60 votes,” according to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

Ryan also faced pressure from House Republicans during his tenure to “bludgeon” McConnell into getting rid of the filibuster to push through more GOP legislation in the Senate. Ryan said he believed that tensions were not as high today and that House and Senate Republicans would agree on most issues, even if they disagree on tactics.

Ryan said he never considered distancing himself from McConnell for political reasons, even though some may have advised it at the time. “You should be durable and loyal, not transactional,” he said.

Boehner, a former Republican House speaker who was also described as gregarious and backslapping, wrote of McConnell in his 2021 memoir that they had a “great working relationship” but that he was a “tough nut to crack.”

“I like to get along with people, to have a few drinks and a few laughs,” Boehner wrote. “Mitch McConnell has a professional facade you cannot shake. It’s useless to try to loosen things up with a joke.” (Ryan disagreed, saying he is fairly sure McConnell has smiled at his jokes in the past. “His smile is very faint,” Ryan said. “You have to look for it.”)

Boehner quickly learned how to irritate his counterpart, after he ill-advisedly lectured the leader on what he thought was going on in his chamber. Boehner described McConnell reprimanding him with his “usual expressionless face.”

“John, I’ll never presume to know more about the House than you do,” Boehner recalled McConnell saying, before he walked away. “And trust me, you’ll never know as much about the Senate as I do.”