Note: A version of this column appeared this week in Resolutesquare.com.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, California – who is struggling for his political life like a swimmer caught in an Atlantic Ocean rip tide – threatened Republican members of the Senate who voted in favor of the omnibus spending bill. He said, in effect, when Republicans take control of the House in January, they will make certain those Senators’ legislative priorities are pushed to the bottom of the stack.
Senate Republicans were not intimidated. The procedural vote to proceed passed easily earlier in the week, and 18 Republican Senators joined all 50 Democrats in passing the $1.7 trillion dollar legislation 68-29.
McCarthy, as you have read, is having trouble wrangling his own conference in his own chamber. The notion that he could rattle his chains and bring Senators to heel is just another example of why he’s in such trouble in his bid to be Speaker.
Kevin McCarthy doesn’t intimidate anyone.
But, there is ample history regarding relations between Representatives and Senators.
Some years ago, I was having lunch with a former member of the U.S. House, when the discussion drifted toward this business of bi-cameral equity. He started recounting a time when he needed to discuss an issue with one of his state’s U.S. Senators, so “I walked over to the Senate side to meet with his chief of staff.”
I stopped him and said, “You know, that has never happened in reverse. A Senator has never, ever walked to the House side to meet with a Representative’s chief of staff.”
We had a good laugh about it, but it was true.
In my earliest days as a Capitol Hill Staffer, I was press secretary for a Congressman from Illinois. We had a matter that we needed cooperation from one of the Illinois Senators, so three of us trooped over to the Senate side for a sit-down with the Senator’s legislative staff.
They were polite and helpful, but something came up that they hadn’t discussed with their boss and no one wanted to speak for him.
“Why don’t you just go in and ask him?” I foolishly suggested.
They looked at me like I had grown a hand out of my forehead.
They said they needed to make an appointment to see the Senator and the Chief of Staff (called the Administrative Assistant back in those days) wasn’t likely to grant the request.
They asked how often we got to see our boss. “As often as necessary,” one of us replied. “If his door is open, we go in, ask what we need to ask, get the answer, and go back to work.”
Stunned silence from the Senate staffers.
When Newt Gingrich was Speaker, I worked out of the Republican National Committee building just off the Capitol compound. One day I was walking across the Capitol Plaza when a Capitol Police officer stopped me and said I had to walk in the approved crosswalks.
I complied, but when I got to the Speaker’s suite, I asked Newt when (and why) this new “walk to the rule” business had been implemented. He asked me what I was talking about, and I told him about the cop and the crosswalk.
He called out to his assistant to get the Sergeant-at-Arms on the phone and was told that a pedestrian had been clipped, but not injured, by a car walking across the Senate side of the Capitol Plaza and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott – also a Republican – had ordered the crosswalk rules be enforced. Even on the House side.
Newt would have none of it and ordered the Capitol Police on the House half of the Plaza to revert to the status quo ante and allow people to cut across the plaza at will. Not only that, but he “suggested” I reverse my trek, walk back across the plaza, and report whether his order had been implemented.
It had been.
Senators believe the only reason the House exists is so when joint meetings, such as speeches by Ukrainian Presidents, come up and the Senate chamber isn’t large enough to handle the crowd, Senators have a place to go.
The notion that a member of the House – even if he is clinging to the possible fiction he will be the next Speaker – can successfully threaten even a junior Senator with retaliation is laughable.
The crosswalk story (which is true) shows just how jealously each side protects its prerogatives – even when they are controlled by the same party, which, beginning on or about January 3, 2023, will not be the case.
Kevin McCarthy might be elected Speaker on January 3, but his majority will be razor thin. If he thinks his being Speaker will make Republican Senators automatically take his phone calls, he will be disappointed.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. See you next week.