McHenry's ‘extreme candor’ on Johnson splits GOP

Rep. Patrick McHenry is closing out two decades in Congress by returning to the bomb-throwing days of his youth. His new target is House Speaker Mike Johnson, and it’s starting to rattle fellow conservatives.

McHenry, the bow-tied North Carolina Republican who plans to retire at the end of this session, has been ratcheting up his criticism of Johnson in recent weeks over what he views as a serial mishandling of big issues before the House, including government funding, the border and Ukraine aid.

The underlying tension is that McHenry believes Johnson is holding back activity in the House because of fears that he’ll suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. McHenry told reporters last month that under Johnson’s leadership “we’ve yet to actually fulfill and execute policy.” He went further in a CBS News interview last week, warning of a “50-50” chance of a shutdown and calling it a “preventable disaster.”

One banking lobbyist granted anonymity to speak candidly said McHenry “speaks for what I would call the leadership class of the conference.”

“Patrick uses the ‘Shawshank Redemption’ metaphor,” the person said. “Andy Dufresne has to crawl three miles through a pipe full of human shit to go and reach freedom. And Patrick’s like, ‘Well, you can crawl slowly, or you can crawl quickly.’ … The analogy is supposed to be like, just make a decision.”

McHenry’s public critique of Johnson and the path that led him here is an illustration of the extent to which the House GOP has been turned upside down during his tenure. The 48-year-old lawmaker was once a self-described “bomb-thrower” — also referred to by others as the “the GOP’s attack dog-in-training” — but then took on the mantle as an aspiring deal-maker and McCarthy fixer before finding himself on the outside again in the Johnson era.

“You’re getting extreme candor from Patrick based upon his 20 years of work on the Hill,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), another McCarthy ally, in an interview. “Patrick’s candor is not just motivated by the fact that he’s leaving. But I think it’s motivated by an extraordinary amount of frustration that he feels.”

Some House and Senate Republicans say it’s not helpful, but McHenry told POLITICO on Thursday that he’s voicing concerns shared by others in his party.

“I’ve been around leadership decisions for quite a while,” he said. “I’ve never been bashful about sharing my views, either in the room or outside the room. And what I’m saying is obvious to a majority of the House Republican Conference.”

As he picks a public fight with leadership, some fellow Republicans and K Street lobbyists are questioning whether McHenry is sacrificing a shot at advancing legislative priorities he has as Financial Services chairman. GOP allies are coming to his defense.

“That’s just Patrick McHenry being Patrick McHenry,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said. “He’s willing to speak out. That’s good leadership.”

Others are less admiring. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said, “if you want to criticize leadership in your own chamber, you should stick around and actually fight for the future.” Johnson’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I don’t think that’s constructive,” House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said of McHenry’s approach. “[Johnson’s] in an extremely difficult position with the motion to vacate over his head and a very difficult process to go through. … We can’t afford a vacant chair again. We gotta solidify around our leader and try to do something constructive.”

It’s been a brutal ride for McHenry. He said he felt “pure anger” in the moments after McCarthy was deposed. He was left to serve as acting speaker for three weeks as Republicans struggled to coalesce around new leadership. Once Johnson got the job, McHenry found himself on the periphery, and he’s grown increasingly frustrated.

“He’s watching as people that are out there under the banner of being conservatives … [are] actually forcing decisions that are resulting in higher spending and really playing into the White House’s hands,” Graves said.

McHenry told reporters last month that “many House Republicans that took out McCarthy recognize that we’re in a much worse public policy position now because of this.” He slammed colleagues for becoming “enamored with all this other bullshit.”

Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), one of McHenry’s top deputies at House Financial Services and a potential successor at the committee, said he has confidence in Johnson but that “Patrick is one of those voices who should be listened to because he’s got a perspective.”

“I don’t think it’s destructive,” said Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), who also serves on Financial Services. “I think it’s truly intended to help. And if he wants to voice that, I think it’s fine. Being speaker right now is a tough job for Mike Johnson. Because I don’t have that level of experience at all, I try to be constructive with him privately. But I think Patrick feels it could probably be more effective doing it in the manner he’s doing it.”

Asked whether it’s more effective to speak out publicly versus privately, McHenry told POLITICO “you take the venues you’re given.” He commended Johnson for passing a stop-gap funding bill Thursday and “dealing with the reality of the situation.”

“I’m doing what I think is the responsibility of any leader in this place, which is to try to make things better,” McHenry said. “I’m making my point of view clear. And I think there are other members that have larger concerns that don’t want to do that, and that’s OK.”

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