- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rising star, up-and-comer — call him what you will — Rep. Kevin McCarthy is someone to watch.

After a mere nine months as a state representative, Mr. McCarthy was elected House Republican leader in California. Now, two months into his second congressional term, he’s working in the House’s Republican leadership as chief deputy whip.

The post has been a career springboard for several high-profile House Republicans. Former Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert was chief deputy whip before he became speaker of the House, and both current Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Rep. Roy Blunt used it as a steppingstone to become whip.

The 43-year-old Mr. McCarthy also helped found the Republican Young Guns along with Mr. Cantor and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan in an effort to sharpen Republicans’ message and recruit “fresh-thinking” candidates to run for the House. The Young Guns were among the first to argue that Republicans had defaulted into voting against Democrats without offering alternatives of their own.

“I remember thinking we can’t just sit back and play defense; if we really want to find solutions, we need to challenge people on their ideas,” Mr. McCarthy says. A Weekly Standard cover featuring the trio is on the wall above his desk. “Paul Ryan’s the brilliant policy guy, Eric’s just the well-rounded person who runs the floor, and they throw me in as the strategist.”

Indeed, the Bakersfield, Calif., native reads political almanacs on flights to and from California to learn about his colleagues’ districts.

“My idea is knowing somebody’s district and knowing somebody will help me in passing legislation because, you know, maybe this is good for their district, too,” he says.

Mr. Ryan credits Mr. McCarthy’s rise to his “high-energy” personality as well as training by his mentor, former Rep. Bill Thomas, whom he replaced in office.

“His rise in three short years is nothing short of phenomenal, but not surprising,” Mr. Ryan says of his friend. “Once you get to know him, you can see why. He’s a very gifted person.”

Asked what he enjoys about policymaking, Mr. McCarthy eagerly recalls his days in the state Legislature.

“I love policy,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “Having been leader in California, you worked in what’s called the ‘big five’ on major issues — budget, workers’ comp and others - where the four leaders plus the governor get together to hammer out legislation. It forced you to engage.”

That system of bipartisan give-and-take has been absent in Congress, where House Republicans unanimously panned President Obama‘s stimulus plan after Democrats shut them out of the writing process for the $787 billion bill. Mr. McCarthy worked alongside Mr. Cantor and Minority Leader John Boehner to educate members about the legislation and in the public effort to brand it ineffective.

“I don’t think anyone thought, especially on the first one, we’d get zero,” he says. “The bill was so bad it moved people that way; it wasn’t like we had to go break arms.”

Of course, Mr. McCarthy is quick to acknowledge that Republicans have a challenge in opposing legislation supported by Mr. Obama.

“This president’s a popular president, he’s a great communicator,” he says. “So our work is cut out for us, but I think first and foremost, the tone with which we carry ourselves will determine whether people listen to us or at least give us the opportunity to hear our ideas.”

Like other House Republicans, he is careful to separate Mr. Obama from congressional Democrats, who Mr. McCarthy says are “denying him his honeymoon.”

“This president comes in, and you see Republicans say we want to work with him. The problem is, his own party came in denying him the ability of bipartisanship, which is a detriment to President Obama,” he says. “The Congress itself under Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi does not work the way the structure says. In my generation, we always had on Saturday morning the old ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ — ‘I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill, I’m stuck in committee where I sit here and wait’ — that doesn’t happen here. Bills don’t go through committee.”

House Republicans proposed their own alternative to the Democrats’ bill that they said would create twice the jobs at half the cost, and the entire conference met with the president in what Mr. McCarthy and others described as a productive discussion about policy. But in the end, he says, “politics got in the way.”

“There was a fundamental break where [the president] then decided this has become a political battle,” he says, citing Mr. Obama’s speech to Democrats in Williamsburg, where he blasted critics of the bill. “Part of our concern was we wanted to create real jobs that last, so you want it to be stimulus, you want it to be targeted. But he had legislation that he just now had to get the bill through to make it a victory.”

With Mr. Obama’s budget and other spending proposals sure to draw Republican opposition coming down the pike, Republican leaders are doing what they can to avoid being labeled as the “party of no.”

“We cannot just sit there and say ‘no,’ we have got to have the solutions to move us forward. There are some positives to being in the minority — you’re more efficient with less; it forces us to think,” he says. “We’re going to have to break through the media in different ways and communicate in different ways.”

For example, he cites continuing-education efforts such as giving each person on the whip team an iPod to hear podcasts on legislation from ranking members or to listen to recommended book readings. Mr. McCarthy also encourages his colleagues to use the social networking site Twitter to interact with constituents and explain their votes on bills such as the stimulus plan.

Mr. McCarthy, a regular on the site, recently highlighted Mr. Ryan’s use of hair gel in a post. Later asked about the quip, the dark-haired Mr. Ryan said of his friend: “His hair is very, very gray.”

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