Rep. Patrick McHenry is about to be thrust into the spotlight during one of the most sensitive — and consequential — moments of the year for House Republicans.
McHenry, a skilled vote-counter who currently serves as chief deputy majority whip, will temporarily take over for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, whose return to the House may be weeks or months away after being shot last week.
That means McHenry could be on the hook for helping to convince an extremely divided GOP conference to pass the Senate’s potentially more moderate Obamacare replacement, as well as passing a 2018 budget and raising the federal government’s debt ceiling — some of the most contentious votes of the year.
At the same time, McHenry is grappling with the tragedy of what happened to Scalise, his close friend. The North Carolina Republican spent hours in a Washington hospital awaiting updates after last week’s horrific incident, and lawmakers said he was visibly shaken by the tragedy.
On Tuesday and Thursday, McHenry will host a blood drive for Scalise — just as he takes the reins of the weekly whip meeting for several dozen GOP vote-counters.
“The partnership between Rep. Scalise and Rep. McHenry has always been an important part of this whip operation, and that will continue to be the case,” said Scalise’s spokesman Chris Bond. “McHenry is a very capable chief deputy whip, and as he steps up in coming weeks, the other members of our whip team will also keep up their great work and our staff will continue working hard as well.”
Bond added: “As Whip Scalise’s health improves, we look forward to him becoming more and more engaged, and returning once he’s ready.”
Scalise nearly died on June 14 when a shooter identified as James T. Hodgkinson opened fire during a Republican congressional baseball practice. A bullet went through Scalise’s left hip, shattered bone and tore through internal blood vessels and organs. Scalise went into shock from severe blood loss.
Scalise’s medical team at MedStar Washington Hospital Center upgraded his condition from “critical” to “serious” over the weekend, and his surgeon told reporters Friday he was feeling a “lot more confident and more optimistic” about his recovery.
Still, Scalise’s doctors have made it clear that the Louisiana Republican will be out for an extended period of time, undergoing additional surgeries to repair internal injuries, as well as requiring extensive rehabilitation after leaving the hospital.
Lawmakers and aides say the temporary transition in the whip team is expected to be smooth, if not seamless. Scalise and McHenry have worked closely for three years and have established a complementary system of “good cop-bad cop” when it comes to corralling votes.
Scalise also has a fine-tuned whip operation that will continue to work while he’s in the hospital, led by his chief of staff Brett Horton, floor director Matt Bravo, deputy floor director Chris Hodgson and floor assistant Ben Napier. Those staffers already coordinate on a daily basis with McHenry and his top aide, Parker Poling, who can often be seen on the House floor helping Scalise’s staff twist arms and muster votes.
Scalise, for his part, is already clamoring for news and updates on the legislative agenda from the hospital. While he only fully regained consciousness on Saturday, according to hospital updates, Scalise already expressed a desire to be conferenced into leadership meetings as soon as possible, according to one source.
“[Scalise] may not be at the whip team meeting or on the floor during votes, but he’ll be making phone calls and participating in big, game-time decisions we need to make,” said one source familiar with the situation. “He’ll be a voice in the room even when he’s recovering.”
In a brief interview Monday, McHenry said Scalise built the team for success when he picked his deputy whips and his staff, and McHenry said they’ll work closely together to “get the job done” in his absence.
“The whip team will remain strong and continue to do what Steve set us out to do, and we’ll be ready for when he returns,” McHenry said. “He’s going to be missed, but he’s set a standard for what’s expected and we know what we need to do to get the job done.”
Scalise and McHenry first became friends when Scalise ran for Republican Study Committee chairman at the end of 2012. Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) had the backing of the RSC’s board and most senior members and was favored to win by a longshot. But McHenry helped Scalise whip up support, resulting in an upset victory that launched Scalise on an upward trajectory into the GOP leadership.
The duo, whose offices were near each other in the Rayburn House Office Building, tag-teamed again after Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suddenly lost his primary to conservative challenger Dave Brat. In June 2014, when then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ran for Cantor’s post, Scalise threw his hat into the ring for whip — and McHenry once again helped rally the troops for the win.
After he won, Scalise asked McHenry to be his deputy, one of the few leadership positions that are appointed, not elected.
At just 41, McHenry is the youngest member of a youthful GOP leadership, especially compared to their older Democratic counterparts. But like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the bow-tie wearing McHenry is already a Washington veteran, having been appointed as a special assistant in the Labor Department back in 2001, when he was only 26 years old.
Sharp-tongued and eminently quotable, McHenry followed that job with a two-year stint in the North Carolina House of Representatives. In 2004, still only 29, he was elected to Congress, becoming the youngest member at that time.
The North Carolina Republican was a fierce partisan during his early tenure in the House, repeatedly attacking then Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Barack Obama’s birthplace, even when it got him into trouble.
After Republicans took back the House in 2010, McHenry got a subcommittee gavel on the Financial Services Committee, and started to win plaudits as a legislator. He’s known amongst his colleagues for his dry humor and sarcasm — and amongst reporters for turning questions on the interrogator.
In leadership, Scalise and McHenry approached the job whipping votes with different yet complementary styles. Scalise, a friendly face known for his optimism and back-slapping, has always preferred to sit down with members for long chats to move votes. And since he’s a night owl, Scalise often calls in members to talk late into the evening to get a sense of their thinking.
McHenry, who’s constantly buzzing about on the floor from member to member, has been known to press lawmakers quickly for the hard sell.
"McHenry and Scalise are a team in every sense of the word," said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a deputy whip who works closely with the pair. "Scalise has been very generous with McHenry. He includes [McHenry] in every senior-level meeting, he’s takes him into the [Daily Management Meeting]."
Hudson was referring to the gathering of the top House Republicans, where key decisions are made on what bills will come to the floor and when. McHenry, he added, is "highly intelligent and he knows the members extremely well."
“That’s really the key. You don’t go in and threaten people. You go in and talk to them and meet them where they are. He knows where members are," Hudson said.
With Scalise out, McHenry will be doing more leg work than ever before. It could also be an important moment for McHenry, a rising star in the House, to show he’s leadership material down the road.