Ed. note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming as a Democrat. We regret the error.
When House Republicans selected Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to be their next majority leader on Thursday, they picked a safe yet unseasoned second-in-command who is unlikely to change the House’s dismal status quo when it comes to issues important to women.
McCarthy defeated Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador (R-ID), whose perceived conservative bona fides and talk radio appearances weren’t enough to win him the vote. First elected to Congress in 2006, McCarthy will become the least-tenured floor leader in U.S. history, serving 423 days less than any other floor leader and almost ten years less than the average leader. He has been criticized for missteps made during his tenure as whip, notably during last year’s debate over the farm bill. He has voted with the House leadership most of the time and is very close with recently ousted Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
McCarthy will face the same divided caucus that has caused Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Cantor considerable headaches over the last few years. Some of the House’s more hardline conservative members already want to see McCarthy ousted, either later this year in the general election or by 2016. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) said he wanted to see McCarthy and other leaders replaced by “more and more conservative-leaning members.”
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McCarthy, who hails from an agrarian and heavily Latino district in California, has expressed nuanced support for immigration reform. The base decries that as “amnesty,” and Cantor’s modest support for certain aspects of immigration reform may have contributed to his crushing primary defeat.
But in many senses, the divide between the establishment “business” and rabble-rousing “populist” GOP conservatives seems to be more about tone, bombast, and identity than actual policy differences. Cantor probably lost less because of immigration than because he wasn’t well-liked in his district, and because his opponent successfully painted him as a Beltway “outsider” who wanted to give “amnesty” to other supposed outsiders.
When it comes to choice and other issues affecting women’s health, it’s hard to see how McCarthy’s positions could be much more conservative, at least in a way that could meaningfully affect votes or policy. He has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, but then so do all but about a dozen Republican House members. He voted to support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and therefore to a woman’s fundamental right to choose, but so did almost all of his GOP colleagues. He has championed the monotonously quixotic cause of trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would be disastrous for women’s health on a number of levels if it ever succeeded, and he has voted along party lines to reject measures promoting equal pay for women.
McCarthy did vote with 86 other Republicans to pass the Violence Against Women Act, after leadership tried and failed to pass the House’s weaker version and finally caved to pressure to pass the Senate version. But he has also repeatedly voted for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” including in years when it contained problematic language about forcible rape. That act goes beyond merely codifying the Hyde Amendment, as its proponents claim—it actively penalizes anyone purchasing insurance plans that include abortion coverage through the Affordable Care Act, and it prohibits the District of Columbia from using its own local tax revenue to fund abortion care for low-income women.
McCarthy also spoke at the 2011 March for Life, possibly indicating more than a lip-service devotion to anti-choice values.
Anti-choice, anti-woman votes like those McCarthy has favored are a matter of course in today’s House GOP caucus. When it comes to their leadership’s values and actions, not just their personality and posturing, Republicans seem to have a choice between “extreme” and “slightly more extreme.”