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Kevin McCarthy Does Damage Control
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Kevin McCarthy Does Damage Control

Plus: All eyes on immigration.

Good afternoon. 

You might be wondering after our Tuesday edition: Did Florida Rep. Charlie Crist go to D.C. this week? Nope. He voted by proxy on every bill.

Meanwhile, Haley has also been in Florida (just visiting family, not running for governor), so Audrey and Harvest kindly agreed to keep Uphill afloat today.

Kevin’s Clean-Up

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s week can be summed up in two words: damage control. 

Days after being caught lying to the New York Times about his comments to fellow House GOP leaders in the aftermath of January 6, McCarthy had to defend himself against yet another report from the Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns: In the days following the Capitol riot, McCarthy privately expressed fear to colleagues that several hard-liners in the House GOP conference might incite violence against other members in the wake of the attack.

McCarthy expressed particular frustration with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who took to the airwaves to deride then-House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney for her criticism of former President Donald Trump’s role in the riot. 

“He’s putting people in jeopardy,” McCarthy said of Gaetz. “And he doesn’t need to be doing this. We saw what people would do in the Capitol, you know, and these people came prepared with rope, with everything else.”

They were strong words from a leader who has spent the year since then ingratiating himself with the former president and far right members in his effort to become speaker next year should Republicans retake the House this fall. 

Also on Tuesday, the Times reported that McCarthy condemned GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama for telling “Save America” March attendees to “fight like hell” to defend election integrity and that January 6, 2021 was “the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”

McCarthy suggested that Brooks’ behavior was worse than Trump’s that day. 

Brooks, who is running for U.S. Senate in Alabama, told The Dispatch on the Capitol steps Tuesday that he has no plans to speak privately with McCarthy about the audio and that the GOP leader simply acted on the information he had at the time. Nor does he have any opinion as to whether McCarthy should face repercussions from the House GOP conference for his remarks. “I will not be in the House in January 2023,” Brooks said in an interview. “I will either be in the Senate or I will be retired being the grandfather to 13 wonderful grandchildren.”

None of this is to say McCarthy’s remarks won’t come back to bite him at some point. In lying to the New York Times, McCarthy also lied to his own members—who won’t forget that, or that he was caught. Some House Republicans are privately embarrassed and frustrated in being expected to defend the GOP leader. One red state Republican House member told The Dispatch that cleaning up after McCarthy and Trump distracts from focusing on the Biden administration and the 2022 midterms.

During his first closed-door conference meeting with members since last week’s phone call audio leak, McCarthy claimed Wednesday that the audio was  deceptively cut and that members shouldn’t let this news cycle distract them from their main priority—the upcoming midterm elections.

A few people stood up during the meeting to voice their criticisms of GOP leaders. Gaetz, for example, reportedly swiped House Republican Whip Steve Scalise in particular for saying of him on the call: “It’s potentially illegal what he’s doing.” The two met privately later that day to discuss the phone call. But with the exception of a few hardliners—including Freedom Caucus Reps. Andy Biggs and Marjorie Taylor Greene—most members benefit from ignoring the story and standing by McCarthy, even if they’re not thrilled it’s dominating headlines.

For most members, the calculus surrounding their silence is simple: Skyrocketing inflation and chaos at the southern border have created an ideal political environment for House Republicans. This is especially true for moderates, most of whom have nothing to gain from trashing McCarthy publicly. One member emphasized that even with McCarthy’s relaxed attitude toward fringe members, he still attempts to moderate between that wing of the conference and other lawmakers (with the important exception, of course, of helping oust Rep. Liz Cheney and endorsing her primary opponent). He has also supported reelection campaigns for the “impeachers” who are running again this year, like Reps. Peter Meijer and Jaime Herrera Beutler.

Another moderate House Republican said Wednesday that some members “may be irritated” with McCarthy, but that most view the report as comments that were made in the heat of the moment when emotions were high. “I believe most will support Kevin and look at him in his totality and not this snapshot in time.”

Mayorkas On the Hill

In a series of three hearings Wednesday and Thursday, Republican lawmakers pressed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for answers on the Biden administration’s handling of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’ve never seen the border more broken,” Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said. “It is not under operational control. It is out of control.”

Mayorkas defended the administration’s approach.

“We inherited a broken and dismantled system that is already under strain. It is not built to manage the current levels and types of migratory flows. Only Congress can fix this,” Mayorkas said.

He also told lawmakers that the country’s outdated immigration laws exacerbate many of the problems at the border.

On Wednesday, he spoke to a House Appropriations subcommittee, then appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee before addressing the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The hearings were intended to discuss the administration’s request for funding for the Department of Homeland Security in the next fiscal year, but Mayorkas’ three appearances offered ample opportunity for other topics.

Among them: the administration’s plans to let the pandemic-era Title 42 expire at the end of May and resume the normal system of processing asylum requests and deportations.

Title 42 is shorthand for a public health order implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Trump administration at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to slow the spread of the virus. It allows border officials to expel migrants back across the border more quickly, without processing their asylum claims. 

Progressive lawmakers held a press conference Thursday slamming the policy, with Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley calling it “unjust and cruel.” Immigration advocates and progressive groups have urged President Joe Biden to end the use of Title 42 since he took office, saying it deprives migrants of the right to seek asylum as established in U.S. law.

“President Biden did the right thing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday morning of Biden’s Title 42 decision.

Many Democrats were heartened by the president’s decision to let it expire in May, but a backlash among more centrist Democrats—and those more vulnerable in the midterm elections—has left the issue uncertain.

Moderate Democrats and Republicans argue that lifting the order would exacerbate a crisis at the border and overwhelm U.S. Border Patrol’s ability to manage the surge.

“We will continue to enforce our immigration laws. After Title 42 is lifted, non-citizens will be processed pursuant to Title 8, which provides that individuals who cross the border without legal authorization are processed for removal and, if unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the United States, promptly removed from the country,” Mayorkas said this week.

In an attempt to get ahead of lawmakers’ concerns, the Department of Homeland Security released a 20-page memorandum Tuesday outlining its “plan for Southwest Border Security and Preparedness.” The memo addressed logistics such as medical care, housing, and transportation. It also focused on processing deportations, coordination with state officials and nonprofit organizations, and addressing smuggling groups and other criminal activities.

It didn’t assuage Republicans. A few of them took a trip to the border earlier this week, using their time during the hearings to talk about the issues they observed on their trip. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, told Mayorkas he should resign and raised the threat of impeachment if Republicans take control of Congress after the midterms. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, also told Mayorkas he should resign.

Jordan asked a largely rhetorical question: “Secretary, have you done anything right?” he demanded during Thursday’s hearing. “Have you done anything right when it comes to the border?”

Mayorkas pushed back by noting the administration has cracked down on intercepting drugs and secured ports of entry. 

Democrats, even some who have criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the border, hit back at their colleagues across the aisle.

“Four years ago, the Republicans had the House, the Senate, and the White House and did nothing” to address immigration laws, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, said Wednesday.

In the Senate, some lawmakers hope to include a provision blocking Title 42 from being rescinded in a larger package supplying aid to Ukraine or a coronavirus relief bill. Inclusion of such an amendment would need buy-in from Democratic leaders in both chambers. Pelosi has said it would be problematic in the House. 

On Monday, a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the administration from ending Title 42, albeit temporarily. Judge Robert Summerhays’ restraining order does not stop DHS from ending the policy on May 23, but it does forbid the administration from beginning a wind-down ahead of that date. Summerhays also set another hearing to consider whether to issue a more severe injunction.

“Yes, we have a broken immigration system in total, but the executive branch has its own independent obligation to defend the integrity of our national borders and to enforce the immigration laws that exist,” Robert Henneke, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), told The Dispatch. TPPF filed an amicus brief in support of the states party to the lawsuit. 

DHS has warned that as the summer months arrive, border crossings could hit a record-setting level of 18,000 per day, a number Mayorkas noted would “strain our capabilities.”

One of the themes of the DHS memo on immigration, and something Mayorkas alluded to as he answered lawmakers’ questions, was the need for a legislative response. The DHS memo noted that the Biden administration proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would expand the pool of people eligible to apply for lawful residency, as well as deal with the backlog in immigration courts by expanding training for immigration judges. The bill has languished after its introduction in the House—it has only Democratic sponsors.

“If you’re not happy with the collateral consequences of the laws that are on the books, that is the duty of Congress,” Sanjay Mathur, an immigration attorney who practices in Texas, told The Dispatch.

“For 25 years now, we’ve seen a lot of administrations bump around various immigration policies and bills not getting passed in Congress. And it’s very frustrating because the law is so archaic. We’re dealing with laws passed in the 1800s and the 1970s that are still having a profound effect on what we’re able and what we’re not able to do today,” Mathur said. “And it’s the failure of Congress.”

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.