If you want to know how well a member of the congressional leadership is fairing, check their fingernails. Inspect the cuticles. Peer at the epidermis. Any hangnails? Are they in need of a manicure?
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss, knows a lot about the rigors of serving in congressional leadership.
And political palmistry.
“I kept noticing, I kept getting these ridges on my fingernails,” said Lott during a visit to the Capitol this week.
Lott sought out a doctor.
“I said, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘Well, that’s stress,’ ” said Lott, recalling the conversation.
We already knew that candidates seeking a promotion in the House Republican leadership ranks were battling tooth and nail after Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his resignation. Perhaps with an emphasis on the nail. This brings a whole new spin to the term “nail biter.”
Lott was a member of the House or Senate leadership for about 17 of the 34 years he served in Congress. He served as House minority whip, Senate majority whip, Senate majority leader, Senate minority leader, Senate majority leader (again) before concluding his tour as Senate minority whip.
And Lott lived the perils of leadership. There’s the pressure. The second-guessing. The infighting. Every word scrutinized and parsed. It’s a lot like the current firestorm embroiling House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and the frontrunner to succeed Boehner.
McCarthy suggested on the Fox News Channel that House Republicans empaneled the chamber’s Select Committee on Benghazi strictly to quash the presidential aspirations of Democrat Hillary Clinton. And that sent the House into a tizzy.
McCarthy’s line was an offhanded comment like the one that swatted Lott from his majority leader perch in December 2002.
It was the 100th birthday party in the Dirksen Senate Office Building for the late-Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. Thurmond sought the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket that championed state’s rights and segregation.
“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” Lott opined at the Thurmond soiree. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either,”
Lott’s apparent backing of Thurmond’s once-segregationist politics torpedoed him from the majority leader’s suite by Christmas.
“It’s windy when you are in the leadership in the House and Senate,” Lott said.
He says when you serve in leadership, someone is always coming for you. Always putting you on the spot. He recounted efforts of political foes who checked into the fidelity of his marriage and his personal finances.
“What did they finally get me with? My own words,” Lott exclaimed.
Lott’s run in leadership in both the House and Senate is remarkable because of its longevity. But you can’t avoid the controversy.
“In the leadership, you take on barnacles like a ship at sea and they start to weight you down after battle,” he said. “Once you get in the leadership, there ain’t no such thing as purity.”
This is why there is discord in the Republican ranks over McCarthy. The House Republican Conference will vote behind closed doors on Thursday to tap a speaker-designate.
But it’s the full House that elects the speaker. House rules dictate that the successful candidate command not just the most votes -- but an absolute majority of those casting ballots.
Upon Boehner’s resignation, the House will have 434 seats. That means the magic number -- if everyone votes for a candidate by name -- is 218. With 246 Republicans in the House by that point, the next GOP Speaker can only lose 28 votes.
Boehner lost 25 Republicans in the January speaker vote. Think those who voted for someone besides Boehner aren’t more revved up now than they were over the winter?
“Nobody has 218 today for speaker,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and often an antagonistic voice when it comes to the GOP leadership. In January, Huelskamp cast his speaker ballot for Rep. Dan Webster, a Florida Republican who is running again.
Huelskamp says Republicans are watching McCarthy closely after the Benghazi declaration.
“Those comments were not helpful,” he said. “I don’t think that got him one vote.”
Another GOP source who asked not to be identified said some Republicans are looking for an “excuse” to vote against McCarthy. And they may have found it.
“Kevin is dealing with some very thin margins on the floor” in the speakership vote, said Rep. David Jolly , R-Fla., adding the Benghazi comment “took its toll.”
“It would be helpful, given the way (McCarthy’s Benghazi remarks were) interpreted if the majority leader clarified his remarks,” said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who also voted for Webster in January.
McCarthy tried to do just that Thursday night during an appearance on Fox’s “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
“I did not intend to imply in any way that the work (of the Benghazi Committee) was political,” McCarthy said.
Congressional observers generally panned McCarthy’s appearance, saying it failed to clean up the mess. One GOP source suggested that McCarthy had failed one of his first tests as a speaker candidate. When asked if he had the necessary 218 votes, McCarthy replied “We’re very close, yes.”
A failure to secure 218 votes on the first ballot for speaker would be a blow to McCarthy -- even if he’s ultimately successful.
A second or third ballot for speaker immediately diminishes his political prowess. It exposes vulnerabilities and reflects the volatility of House Republicans. No vote for speaker has gone to a second ballot since 1923. And if McCarthy does emerge the victor, it might not be for long.
“If he’s lucky, he gets a two-week honeymoon,” said one senior Republican.
“I give him six months,” augured one lawmaker.
On Wednesday, the House voted to avoid a government shutdown. Only 91 Republicans voted yes. Democrats, as is customary these days in the House, carried the way with 186 yeas. McCarthy voted aye. Webster voted nay. Some conservatives viewed that roll call tally as a possible litmus test for speaker.
Oh. And House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, voted nay.
Chaffetz is now tinkering with running for speaker, potentially disrupting the entire race. Earlier in the week, he called for McCarthy to apologize for what he said about Benghazi. He also advocated Benghazi committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., for majority leader.
Chaffetz might not be able to command more votes than McCarthy in the closed-door conference vote or on the floor. But he can discombobulate the entire state of affairs.
To wit: The ballot for speaker in the Republican conclave is secret. But the GOP announces the vote tallies. How can Republicans proceed to a vote for speaker later this month if McCarthy or anyone else receives fewer than 218 backers in the conference meeting?
Moreover, presuming McCarthy commands the most votes for speaker in the conference, how can Republicans immediately vote for a prospective vacancy in the majority leader’s slot when it’s not clear that the current majority leader has the votes to prevail in the speaker vote the floor?
No one has the answers to these questions right now.
There’s a reason why other GOP stalwarts like House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin; Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Texas; and even Gowdy aren’t pursuing any leadership position now.
“Where’s the varsity?” asked one House Republican.
Here’s the answer.
“This isn’t a manageable conference right now,” said one House Republican. “We’re too fratricidal.”
In other words, respected lawmakers aren’t pursuing a position in the GOP ranks because the rank-and-file will eat them alive -- perhaps immediately.
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to Congress, begging lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling by November 5.
“Without sufficient cash, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history,” Lew posited.
An increase in the debt limit is one of the most-toxic votes a member of Congress can take. A failure to do so could call into question the credit-worthiness of the U.S. to say nothing of triggering a global financial shock.
Anyone in leadership -- or pursuing leadership -- is on the hottest of seats right now.
So why would McCarthy put himself through this?
“It was the only chance he has to be speaker, if only for a short period of time,” one lawmaker said.
And what about those passing on a leadership bid now?
“Kevin McCarthy has had this opportunity cast upon him and he knows it will shorten his career,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. “It could be seen as an act of humility and leadership character.”
With such a rambunctious group, how could anyone run the House with authority? If the chamber does elect McCarthy, Trent Lott thinks he knows how he would succeed.
“He worked with Bill Thomas, the most-impossible person to work for,” said Lott with a laugh.
Thomas is the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman. McCarthy served as Thomas’s top aide in his California congressional district. McCarthy won Thomas’s congressional seat when his mentor retired. Thomas was smart as a whip and wielded a steady hand on the House’s tax-writing panel. He was also known for sporting one of the most acerbic, caustic temperaments of any lawmaker in the House.
McCarthy’s nature is a polar opposite of Thomas’s. McCarthy is genial. A backslapper. Inviting. Non-confrontational. Funny. Some ask if that’s what the House needs now. Can McCarthy play tough with Tea Party lawmakers? Will he just go-along-to-get-along with Republicans, inviting major standoffs on key issues this fall. Can he spar with Democrats, namely House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“She goes for the kill when she senses weakness,” said one lawmaker. “You can’t show weakness with her.”
So why would anyone want this job, be it McCarthy, Webster or Chaffetz? Why would House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., or Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., want to succeed McCarthy as majority leader?
And how much stress are they under? Check their fingernails.