Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is the leader of the House, at least for now

Published 2:38 pm Monday, October 9, 2023

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

As Kevin McCarthy got pushed out of his job as House speaker, in part by colleagues who helped put him on the dais nine months ago, one of his top lieutenants stepped in to preside — at least temporarily.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry took the gavel after Tuesday’s vote to oust McCarthy – a historic first for a House speaker. According to House rules, McHenry was picked from a list McCarthy was required to keep and will serve essentially as the acting speaker — known as speaker pro tempore — until the chamber figures out who will be the next leader.

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For McHenry, who stands out with his signature bow ties, the interim job marks his most public position to date during his 10 terms in the House.

But he had already risen in stature and prominence within the House. McHenry was one of McCarthy’s closest allies, and helped him win the speaker’s contest in January and negotiate the debt limit deal that McCarthy made with President Joe Biden earlier this year.

He helped McCarthy keep his fragile majority together until it came apart following the decision to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown. He gave a floor speech Tuesday supporting McCarthy.

Dee Stewart, McHenry’s longtime political consultant and his first chief of staff on Capitol Hill, said it doesn’t surprise him that, for now, his close friend is presiding over one of the world’s most important legislative bodies.

“He’s demonstrated a tremendous acumen as a member of Congress and is widely respected by most everyone who deals with him,” said Stewart, who first met McHenry in 1996 at a convention of the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans.

One of McHenry’s first acts in the temporary position was to oust Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi from her honorary office at the Capitol while she was away in California to pay tribute to the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Pelosi called the eviction “a sharp departure from tradition.” But she added: “Office space doesn’t matter to me, but it seems to be important to them. Now that the new Republican Leadership has settled this important matter, let’s hope they get to work on what’s truly important for the American people.”

McHenry, who will turn 48 later this month, grew up around the Charlotte area. He went to North Carolina State University before graduating from Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic school just west of Charlotte.

While still in college, he ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in 1998, but he won four years later at age 27. McHenry had worked for a Washington-based media consulting firm, for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, and as a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Labor.

McHenry served just one term in the General Assembly, where he witnessed a historic stalemate over who should be the chamber’s speaker. The fight ended with a Democrat and a Republican sharing the job, with each gaveling in sessions on alternate days.

But McHenry was looking ahead, and in 2004 he pulled off a Republican primary victory for the seat in the blue-collar, manufacturing-focused 10th Congressional District seat being vacated by the retiring GOP Rep. Cass Ballenger.

He advanced to a runoff, where he defeated a popular local sheriff by just 85 votes out of 30,000 cast to win the party nomination. Aides credited McHenry’s grassroots campaigning — Stewart said they knocked on 60,000 doors — for defeating rivals who were nearly twice his age and outspent him heavily.

After defeating the Democratic nominee in 2004, McHenry entered Congress as a hardline conservative willing to speak against leadership. He broke against GOP leaders by upholding a campaign promise to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

But over time McHenry rose up the GOP leadership ladder, becoming the Republicans’ chief deputy whip in 2015, and a key part of McCarthy’s team. This year he’s been the House Financial Services Committee chairman.

McHenry “really earned his stripes by (being) willing to take on tough issues in a vocal way during his first couple of terms,” Stewart said, adding that he was granted more responsibilities as he “demonstrated his loyalty to the conservative cause.”

Former Speaker John Boehner told Politico in 2017 after leaving office, “McHenry’s going to be the speaker one day.”

Stewart was careful about whether McHenry could become the permanent speaker, saying Stewart was “taking a wait-and-see approach.”

McHenry has won reelection by comfortable margins, a reflection of Republican dominance in rural western North Carolina. Married to a U.S. government economist and father to three children, McHenry lives on Lake Norman within the 10th District.

Known for his deadpan jokes, McHenry can also have a fiery side.

While on the dais Tuesday, he read carefully from a paper saying it would be “prudent” to recess the House so that party caucuses and conferences could meet “to discuss the path forward.”

McHenry then slammed the gavel down very hard — and the footage went viral on social media.

Associated Press writer Stephen Groves in Washington contributed to this report.