House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy raised a few eyebrows last week when he told Punchbowl News that U.S. support for Ukraine would be in jeopardy if Republicans gain power in the midterm elections. “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” the would-be House speaker said. “They just won’t do it. ... It’s not a free blank check.”
The GOP leader’s comments did not go unnoticed abroad. David Arakhamia, who leads Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party in parliament, told the Financial Times last week: “We were shocked to hear these comments of Mr. McCarthy, honestly.”
Closer to home, Rep. Liz Cheney, who used to serve alongside McCarthy in the House Republican leadership, had a similar response. “At every moment since, frankly, the aftermath of the election in 2020, when Minority Leader McCarthy has had the opportunity to do the right thing, or do something that serves his own political purpose, he always chooses to serve his own political purpose,” the Wyoming congresswoman told NBC News’ Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” yesterday.
Cheney added, “Such as the aid to Ukraine, the idea that the party is now no longer going to support the Ukrainian people. For somebody who has the picture of Ronald Reagan on his wall in his office in the Capitol, the notion that now Kevin McCarthy is going to make himself the leader of the pro-Putin wing of my party is just a stunning thing. It’s dangerous. He knows better.”
But while public differences between McCarthy and Cheney might seem predictable, even more notable was a statement from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell late last week. Politico reported:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to break from his House counterpart on Friday, calling on the Biden administration to expedite military aid to Ukraine and vowing that Senate Republicans will work to ensure “timely delivery of needed weapons.”
“I welcome and applaud those of our allies and partners who have also committed assistance to Ukraine,” the Kentucky Republican said in a written statement. "More of them need to step up to the plate. For our part, the United States Congress has funded and approved ongoing aid on an overwhelming bipartisan basis. It is not enough for the Biden Administration to slowly, eventually get around to providing it. It must be expedited. A Republican majority in the Senate will focus its oversight on ensuring timely delivery of needed weapons and greater allied assistance to Ukraine.”
McConnell did not mention his House counterpart, but the context was hardly subtle: Two days after McCarthy conceded that a GOP majority on Capitol Hill would imperil aid to Ukraine, the Senate’s top Republican delivered a very different message.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. As we discussed a month ago, as lawmakers approved a stop-gap spending package to prevent a government shutdown, McCarthy’s leadership team directed its members to vote against the measure. McConnell did the opposite.
A day earlier, McConnell extended a surprisingly hearty endorsement to a bipartisan effort to reform the Electoral Count Act and prevent future coup attempts. McCarthy rejected that same effort.
What’s more, over the last year, McConnell voted for the bipartisan infrastructure package and the biggest gun reform bill in three decades, while McCarthy opposed both.
Some of their differences extend beyond specific legislation. As a matter of election season strategy, for example, McConnell forcefully rejected the idea of Republicans unveiling a legislative blueprint ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. And yet, there was McCarthy going in the opposite direction last week, pushing his annoyingly vague “Commitment to America.”
There are also tonal differences. After the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, for example, McCarthy appeared desperate to impress Donald Trump and condemn federal law enforcement, while McConnell was more circumspect.
The two Republican leaders also have very little in common when it comes to how they approach Donald Trump: McCarthy has been willing to sacrifice his dignity to stay in the former president’s good graces, while McConnell has earned the former president’s contempt by acknowledging the legitimacy of the 2020 election results.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, it would be an overstatement to suggest that the two GOP leaders are intraparty opponents. They’re not. We’re talking about two conservative Republicans who agree more than they disagree.
But to think that McCarthy and McConnell are always on the same page would be wrong, too. They differ far more often than leaders from the same party generally do, and if either — or both — of them end up leading a majority conference in the next Congress, these deviations may prove to be quite important.