MONONGAHELA, Pennsylvania — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday confronted President Joe Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress with a sweeping midterm election agenda filled with Trump-like promises, hoping not only to defeat Democrats but to hold together the uneasy coalition of his own party and pass actual legislation.
McCarthy, who is poised to seize the speaker’s gavel if Republicans win control of the House in the fall, hopes to replicate the strategy that former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia used to spark voter enthusiasm and gain a majority in 1994. Victories in battleground Pennsylvania, where McCarthy announced the agenda, could be a crucial step in November.
The House GOP’s “Commitment to America” gives a nod to the earlier era but updates it in the age of Donald Trump, with economic, border security and social policies to rouse the former president’s deep well of supporters in sometimes-overlooked regions like this rusty landscape and rolling farmland outside Pittsburgh.
“What the ‘Commitment’ is, it’s a plan for a new direction,” McCarthy said at a manufacturing facility in a historic building near downtown.
On Friday, he stood with a wide cross-section of lawmakers — from far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, to less extreme GOP members of Congress — to roll out the party’s agenda, offering a portrait of unity despite the wide range of views that make up the House minority — and the Republican Party nationally. The GOP has shifted from its focus on small government, low taxes and individual freedoms to a more populist, nationalist and, at times, far-right party, essentially still led by Trump, who remains popular despite the deepening state and federal investigations against him.
Propelled by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” voters, the Republicans need to pick up just a few seats to win back control of the narrowly split House and replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But even so, McCarthy’s ability to lead the House is far from guaranteed.
While Republicans and Trump did pass tax cuts into law, the GOP’s last big campaign promise, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” collapsed in failure. Republican speakers, including Gingrich, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, have been forced from office or have chosen early retirement, often ground down by party infighting.
“House Republicans are really good at running people out of town,” said Matt Schlapp, chair of the Conservative Political Action Coalition.
McCarthy, first elected to office in 2006, is among the remaining survivors of those House Republican battles, a leader who, somewhat like, Trump has shown more ability to communicate than to legislate.
A key architect of the Republican tea party takeover in 2010, the California Republican personally recruited the newcomers to Congress — many who had never served in public office and are now long gone. McCarthy was an early Trump endorser and has remained close to the former president, relying on Trump’s high-profile endorsements to propel GOP candidates for Congress. He abandoned an earlier bid to become speaker when support from House colleagues drifted.
The “Commitment to America” reflects the strength of McCarthy’s abilities but also his weaknesses. He spent more than a year pulling together the House GOP’s often warring factions — from the far-right MAGA to what’s left of the more centrist ranks — to produce a mostly agreed-upon agenda.
But the one-page “commitment” is succinct, essentially what McCarthy called a “pocket card.” The first bill next year would be to repeal funding approved by Democrats to bolster the Internal Revenue Service with more employees.
“Long on slogans and short on details,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told union workers in Pittsburgh on Friday, according to excerpts of his speech. “That’s because the true details of Republicans’ agenda are too frightening for most American voters.”
In traveling to swing state Pennsylvania, a state where Biden holds emotional ties from his early childhood, McCarthy intends to counter the Democratic president’s fiery Labor Day weekend speech, in which he warned of rising GOP extremism after the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, with a more upbeat message.
The event was more of a conversation with the GOP leader and lawmakers — fielding questions from the community on the inflation, crime and school choices — rather than a stirring address in a contested state.
Along with as many as five House seats Republicans believe they can pick up in Pennsylvania in November, the state has one of the most watched Senate races, between Democrat John Fetterman and Trump-backed Dr. Mehmet Oz, that will help determine control of Congress. At the top of the ticket is the seismic governor’s matchup between the GOP’s Doug Mastriano, who was seen outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, and Democrat Josh Shapiro.
“If you are a hard-line populist and you really want anger, Kevin’s a little frustrating because he’s not going to be angry enough for you,” Gingrich said. “On the other hand, if what you want is to have your values implemented and passed in the legislation, he is a really good leader and organizer.”
Gingrich has been working with McCarthy and his team to craft the style and substance of the proposal. The former speaker, who has been asked by the Jan. 6 committee investigating the Capitol attack for an interview, was on hand Thursday in Washington, joining McCarthy as he unveiled the plans privately to House Republicans, who have been mixed on the approach.
Mostly, the GOP “pocket card” as he called it hits broad strokes — energy independence, security and an end to liberal social policies, particularly in schooling.
Conservative Republicans complain privately that McCarthy isn’t leaning hard enough into their priorities, as he tries to appeal to a broader swath of voters and hold the party together.
Many are eager to launch investigations into the Biden administration and the president’s family, with some calling for impeachment. Legislatively, some House Republicans want to fulfill the party’s commitment to banning abortion, supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
In a sign of the pressures ahead for McCarthy, dozens of House GOP lawmakers signed on to plans from Trump-aligned Greene to prevent many gender reassignment procedures for minors, celebrating the Georgian as courageous for taking such a hard-line approach.
She and others, including former McCarthy rival Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — who vowed to launch investigations including into the COVID-19 crisis — joined Friday’s event, as McCarthy seeks their backing.
Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, has advocated for withholding federal funds as leverage for policy priorities, a tactic that engineered past government shutdowns.
“Putting out like, you know, principles about, ‘Well, we’ll secure the border.’ I mean, OK, but what are we gonna do about it?” Roy said. “The end of the day, I want specific actionable items that’s going to show that we’re going to fight for the American people.”
It’s notable that McCarthy alone has proposed a plan if Republicans win control of the House chamber. In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell has declined to put forward an agenda, preferring to simply run against Biden and Democrats in the midterm election.
“Kevin’s done a very good job of being in position to become the speaker. And then the question is, what do you do with that? Schlapp said. “This helps as a roadmap.”
Story by Lisa Mascaro. Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.