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McCarthy defends absence from vote overriding Trump's defense-bill veto

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House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump react to farmer Larry Starrh praising the President's efforts towards farmers during Trump's February visit to Bakersfield.

News reports out of Washington raised a legitimate question this week about Rep. Kevin McCarthy: How is it the Bakersfield Republican missed one of the most politically delicate situations of the last four years — Monday's vote on whether to override President Donald Trump's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act?

The simple answer is that the House minority leader was recovering at his home in Bakersfield from an elbow surgery three days before Christmas. But there's more to it than that.

McCarthy could have voted by proxy, as many members of Congress have done during the pandemic rather than crowd into the U.S. Capitol. But he said by phone Tuesday afternoon that he refrained from doing so out of principle, not because he wanted to duck a sensitive vote.

"I believe it's unconstitutional to vote by proxy," he said. "I believe you have to be there to vote."

His absence from Monday's vote has drawn criticism, including in posts to his Facebook page, where there was a photo of McCarthy recovering on a couch aside his dogs with a Christmas tree in the background. Some say he should have been in Washington to vote despite the pain and recovery process.

If the timing were better, if he had foreseen the previously unscheduled vote and postponed his surgery a second time, would he have supported overriding the president's veto in a vote that ended up passing 322-87 to approve $740 billion in military spending, including 3-percent raises for U.S. troops?

No, he said.

"I would have supported the president," McCarthy told The Californian.

Even though he originally voted in favor of the act, he said he saw room for improvements just as Trump did. And in line with the president's explanation for vetoing the bill, McCarthy said he favors removing a federal law protecting websites from liability for objectionable content their users upload.

McCarthy added that, had he been in Washington, he also would have voted against a separate bill that proposed giving $2,000 stimulus checks to individuals, as called for by Trump. That legislation passed the House but is opposed by Republican leadership in the Senate and is not expected to make it to the president's desk.

Though still tender, McCarthy has not been entirely idled by the elbow surgery, which he said was an outpatient procedure — originally set for Dec. 15 but postponed amid federal stimulus talks — involving bone perforations and clearing away tendons. He said the condition had been treated previously with steroid shots and platelet injections.

While recovering in Bakersfield, he said, he spent days on the phone with Trump, together with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, trying to persuade the president to sign a bill extending federal unemployment benefits and offering individuals a $600 stimulus check. After initially coming out against the bill, Trump signed it Sunday.

McCarthy said he didn't argue the case so much as he helped Trump come around.

"The president always makes up his own mind," he said. "Was I able to be a part of explaining things? Yes."

McCarthy said he did not suddenly adopt a position against congressional proxy voting because it helped him out of a tight spot.

He sued in May to halt the practice, alleging the Democrats' use of proxy voting was unconstitutional and amounts to diluting congressional votes because it allows appointed members who vote in person on behalf of others. He said he and other Republicans refuse to participate in the proxy system because it endangers the bills approved in that way.

"I believe if you vote by proxy it'll make the bill unconstitutional," McCarthy said.

His legal counsel, Machalagh Carr, said by phone the nation's founders were aware of proxy voting but they "specifically chose not to allow it" because it undermines face-to-face debate and discussion.

"Even then they realized the importance of people coming together," she said.

McCarthy said the elbow surgery went well but it was serious enough that he didn't get to see his mother for Christmas. A full recovery is expected to take three months, he added, but maybe he'll heal before then.

"I'll do that fast, hopefully," he said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf