By Melanie Zanona and Kristin Wilson, CNN. Photographs by Tamir Kalifa for CNN.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is vowing to secure the border, cut back on government spending and launch rigorous investigations into the Biden administration if Republicans win the House on Tuesday, reflecting a mix of priorities as McCarthy will be forced to contend with an increasingly hardline and pro-Trump conference that is itching to impeach President Joe Biden.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with CNN, two days before the midterm elections, McCarthy outlined his plans for power, which includes tackling inflation, rising crime and border security — three issues that have become central to Republicans’ closing pitch to voters. To hammer home that message, McCarthy — who has been barnstorming the country in the run-up to the midterms — rallied here on Sunday for a trio of Hispanic GOP women who are vying to represent key districts along the southern border, a key part of the party’s strategy for winning the majority.
“The first thing you’ll see is a bill to control the border first,” McCarthy told CNN, when asked for specifics about his party’s immigration plans. “You’ve got to get control over the border. You’ve had almost 2 million people just this year alone coming across.”
The Biden administration continues to rely on a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule, known as Title 42, that allows border authorities to turn migrants away at the US-Mexico border. In fiscal year 2022, amid mass migration in the Western hemisphere, US border encounters topped 2 million, according to US Customs and Border Protection data. Of those, more than 1 million were turned away under Title 42.
But McCarthy also highlighted oversight and investigations as a key priority for a GOP-led House, listing potential probes into the chaotic Afghanistan pullout, the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and how the administration has dealt with parents and school board meetings. And he left the door open to launching eventual impeachment proceedings, which some of his members have already begun to call for.
“We will never use impeachment for political purposes,” McCarthy said. “That doesn’t mean if something rises to the occasion, it would not be used at any other time.”
And with the MAGA-wing calling to cut off funding to Ukraine while the GOP’s defense hawks vow not to abandon the country amid its war with Russia, McCarthy attempted to reaffirm his support for Ukraine while saying they would not automatically rubber stamp any additional requests for aid.
“I’m very supportive of Ukraine,” McCarthy said. “I think there has to be accountability going forward. … You always need, not a blank check, but make sure the resources are going to where it is needed. And make sure Congress, and the Senate, have the ability to debate it openly.”
McCarthy declined to name how many seats he thinks Republicans will pick up on Tuesday, but said he was confident it will “be at least enough to win the majority.” McCarthy did say that, in his eyes, “anywhere over 20 is a red wave.”
And McCarthy, who had to drop out of the speaker’s race in 2015 amid opposition from the far right House Freedom Caucus, told CNN he believes he’ll have the support this time around to secure the coveted speaker’s gavel — both from his conference and from former President Donald Trump.
“I’ll believe we’ll have the votes for speaker, yes,” McCarthy said. “I think Trump will be very supportive.”
On the influx of migrants at the border, McCarthy said “there’s a number of different ways” his majority will tackle the problem, but said Republicans would not put a bill on the floor to fix the broken immigration system until the border is secure.
“I think ‘Stay in Mexico’ you have to have right off the bat,” he said, referring to the controversial policy where migrants were forced to remain in Mexico while they wait for their immigration proceedings in the United States.
To help stem the flow of fentanyl coming across the border, McCarthy said “you first do a very frontal attack on China to stop the poison from coming,” and then “provide the resources that the border agents need” and “make sure that fentanyl anytime anybody who wants to move it, you can prosecute him for the death penalty.”
When pressed for specific on his plans to fight crime, McCarthy said Republicans would fund the police, provide grants for recruiting and training, and look at how crimes are being prosecuted. And to bring down inflation and gas prices, he said they would reduce government spending and make America more energy independent, though he did not name specific bills.
Most bills will be primarily messaging endeavors, unlikely to overcome the president’s veto or the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, though they would have to pass legislation to fund the government and raise the national borrowing limit at some point next year. McCarthy, however, signaled Republicans will demand spending cuts in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling, teeing up a risky fiscal showdown that could lead to a disastrous debt default.
“If you’re going to give a person a higher limit, wouldn’t you first say you should change your behavior, so you just don’t keep raising and all the time?” he said. “You shouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna let you keep spending money.’ No household should do that.”
McCarthy acknowledged Republicans were willing to raise the debt ceiling under Trump, but said the calculus is different now because Democrats spent trillions of dollars under Biden.
When pressed on whether he’s willing to risk a default by using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, McCarthy insisted that wouldn’t happen: “People talk about risking it. You don’t risk a default.”
Aside from working to recapture the majority, McCarthy has also been campaigning to win the speaker’s gavel. And a key part of that strategy has been elevating potential critics and controversial Trump allies.
To that end, McCarthy has vowed to reinstate freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia to her committee assignments, despite being stripped of her assignments by Democrats last year for her inflammatory remarks.
Meanwhile, McCarthy reiterated his plans to boot Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, from his seat on the House Intelligence Committee.
When asked if he has any restrictions about which committees Greene can serve, McCarthy — who will have a direct say in doling out those assignments — said “no.” Greene has previously told CNN she wants a seat on the House Oversight Committee, which will play a key role in GOP-led investigations in a majority.
“She’s going to have committees to serve on, just like every other member … Members request different committees and as we go through the steering committee, we’ll look at it,” he said. “She can put through the committees she wants, just like any other member in our conference that gets elected.”
Greene is not the only member who has spouted conspiracy theories or incendiary rhetoric. Most recently, some Republicans have mocked the brutal attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, or peddled fringe conspiracy theories about the incident.
Asked his message to those Republicans, McCarthy said: “What happened to Paul Pelosi is wrong, and I think we should not get into this rhetoric.”
But when pressed how he would tamp down that type of rhetoric, McCarthy pointed a finger at Democrats.
“The first thing I’ll ask the president to do is not to call half the nation idiots or say things about them because they have a difference of opinion,” he said. “I think leadership matters, and I think it probably starts with the president. And it will start with the speaker as well.”
Again asked how he’ll handle members of his own party who spread dangerous conspiracy theories, McCarthy responded: “I’ve watched people on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “If I’m speaker, I’ll be the speaker for the whole House. So it won’t be looking at just Republicans. We’ll be looking at Democrats as well.”
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CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.