Kevin McCarthy says Biden rarely takes his calls. What does it mean if the House flips?

·7 min read
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) speaks at the California Republican Party convention in Anaheim
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy cannot be seen as too chummy with a Democratic president, for fear of inciting a revolt among more hard-edged conservatives in his caucus. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

As the United States hastily exited Afghanistan last year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy dialed up the White House’s public switchboard number to lodge his anger over the messy withdrawal.

The Bakersfield Republican got a quizzical call back from a White House staffer who wanted to know if it was actually him who left a message, according to McCarthy’s retelling during a record-long House floor speech in November. President Biden followed up with a call, in which the two men clashed over the last Americans left in the country as the U.S.’ longest war ended.

It was the only publicly known one-on-one call during the first 16 months of the Biden administration between the president and the man who could be speaker of the House next year, political rivals who would be part of the small cadre of elected leaders responsible for keeping the government funded and avoiding a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt.

If, as is widely expected, Republicans win control of the House in this fall’s midterm elections, the lack of a personal relationship between the two leaders could have significant, wide-ranging consequences for governing. Anything Biden wants to get through Congress — including must-pass bills such as a debt limit increase, response to a natural disaster and other ambitious legislation — would run through a potentially tumultuous House lacking any leader who shares a history with the president.

As McCarthy recounted the switchboard story on Fox News last week, he called it “the one time the president actually took my call.”

It’s unclear whether McCarthy had no other contact information for a senior White House staffer who could connect him to the president or favored the political theater of a call to the public White House number. McCarthy’s office declined to answer questions about the call or any other attempt to reach out to Biden. The Biden administration did not dispute the account and declined to share any details on its interactions with McCarthy.

There is a long history of friendly or adversarial relationships between speakers of one party and presidents of the other. Most famously, Republican President Reagan enjoyed a friendly partnership with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. At the other end of the spectrum, Speaker Nancy Pelosi openly feuded with President Trump. Speaker John A. Boehner vacillated between sparring with President Obama and cutting deals over cigarettes (Boehner’s) and Nicorette gum (Obama’s).

A lot has changed since the Reagan-O’Neill years. Biden and McCarthy will have to find a way to work together, assuming Republicans take control of the House. But each also has reasons to keep that relationship largely at arm’s length. McCarthy, in particular, can’t be seen as too chummy with a Democratic president, for fear of inciting a revolt among more hard-edged conservatives in his caucus, who already suspect him of not really being one of them.

“Each speaker progressively gets less leash on this kind of thing these days,” said Brendan Buck, who was a senior advisor to GOP Speakers Boehner and Paul D. Ryan. “So I don’t think Kevin’s going have a ton of latitude to buddy-buddy partner with the president, but I don’t think he has any real interest in that either.”

A significant unknown that will factor into the mix is which party controls the Senate. Biden has a much longer relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican who would be majority leader if his party takes control of that chamber. Though Biden leveraged that relationship to enact a bipartisan infrastructure package last year, little else has come from the pairing.

McCarthy is far from a frequent visitor to the White House. He went a year ago as part of a meeting between Biden and the four congressional leaders. He also attended a social dinner with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a small number of other U.S. politicians last year.

“He hasn’t been working with us. I’ve only seen the president a couple times,” McCarthy said of Biden on Fox. “He’s never called to ask. I’ve reached out numerous times.”

Biden, for his part, has repeatedly expressed his lack of familiarity with the current crop of GOP leaders. “All kidding aside, this is a MAGA party now,” Biden said last month at an Earth Day event. “These guys are a different breed of cat. They are not like what I served with for so many years.”

The Trump presidency and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection have frozen many of the existing bipartisan relationships on Capitol Hill. And with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress, they have focused on pushing legislation through a fast-track legislative process that didn’t require Republicans. They successfully moved one COVID-19 relief measure through that process but failed to enact Biden’s social spending and climate bill.

Republicans expect that attitude to change if their party takes at least one house of Congress.

“Maybe it’s optimism, but I think it will change when [Biden] wants his second two years to be — I would imagine you want them to be somewhat productive,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale). “That means our side will actually have to be sitting around hashing some stuff.”

Neither Biden nor White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain are known to have productive relationships with House Republicans, said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who is close with House leadership. He recounted a White House event that a few House Republicans were invited to early in the Biden presidency.

“But outreach is a concerted effort. It’s not a one-time affair,” he said. “This White House has gone back to a less successful way of working with Hill leaders, frankly, to their own peril, to their detriment. They’re going to have to shift if Republicans take control in a mighty way if they hope to have any success.”

Perhaps the most significant question facing McCarthy will be how much latitude his own party gives him to work with his political adversary, especially on something as politically unpopular with Republicans as raising the debt limit.

“It’s never popular in your own party, and more specifically within your own conference, to be working too closely with a Democratic president,” Buck said. “Kevin will always have to balance being the loyal opposition with the basic necessities of governance that come along with being speaker of the House.”

Both Ryan and Boehner were routinely challenged by that seesaw. At one point in mid-2011, Boehner secretly went to the White House to negotiate details of a debt limit increase with Obama to avoid angering his members.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) pointed to the recent bipartisan approval of $40-billion Ukraine relief legislation as a sign that McCarthy can deliver his conference on a bill of international importance that the GOP didn’t love.

“I know Leader McCarthy was not happy about the process; no Republican would be,” Cole said. “I heard him talk about how important it was for the country to be united, to project the common image here. … He stepped up even when there was considerable hesitation in certain portions of his caucus.”

Cole placed hope in the fact that both McCarthy and Biden are skilled politicians who thrive on personal relationships.

“They’re naturally gregarious people,” Cole said. Biden “is a hail-fellow-well-met classic politician who likes to make a deal, and so is Kevin. Their consuming singular interest is politics. So I actually can see the basis of some really good deals.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.