Shaken lawmakers straggled back into the U.S. House chamber long after dark on Jan. 6, 2021, sidestepping debris left by the violent assault on the Capitol a few hours earlier. On a nearly unthinkable day for America, they had one remaining task: certifying Joe Biden’s presidential victory over incumbent Donald Trump, who had summoned the crowd in hopes of blocking the move.

The focus was on Republicans, as every Democrat was certain to uphold Biden’s clear-cut win. Enough House Republicans—but still fewer than a third—had pledged to join them, assuring Biden would be certified. The remaining Republicans had a free but symbolically weighty vote: What did they stand for? How did they want to be remembered?

If any of the newer members among North Carolina’s eight House Republicans  wanted guidance or reassurance that evening, they likely would have turned to their most-senior colleagues: Virginia Foxx and Patrick McHenry.

Both Foxx and McHenry entered the House in 2005 after stints in the North Carolina legislature. Skilled at winning reelections and willing to work hard, they have ridden their longevity and political savvy to ranking positions on two House committees: Financial Services for McHenry; Education and the Workforce for Foxx. 

For 18 years they have represented neighboring (albeit frequently redrawn) districts wedged between Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro. Their paths have run parallel in many ways. But on that January night, they notably diverged. 

Foxx joined 137 other House Republicans in voting to reject Pennsylvania’s election results, an effort to block Biden’s ascension and the American voters’ will. 

McHenry was among the 64 House Republicans—the only one from North Carolina—to certify the November election outcome and reject Trump’s claims of fraud. His choice carried risk. Only a few other House Republicans, including South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, were so willing to stand against the rest of  their state’s GOP members. 

It wasn’t the first time McHenry and Foxx had parted ways on high-profile issues.

In 2013, McHenry voted to end a GOP-initiated government shutdown. In that year and in 2015, he voted to raise the federal debt ceiling, which allows Congress to pay for spending it has already approved. He says he’ll do so again this year. 

Foxx, with many Republican colleagues, voted against those moves, knowing they would pass anyway with party leaders’ quiet blessing. 

At first blush, McHenry’s certification of Biden was a head-scratcher. At 29, the House’s youngest member in 2005, he’d been a noisy, self-described bomb-thrower who delighted in painting Democrats as pro-spending, pro-abortion and anti-gun rights. His brashness irked even some fellow Republicans. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner said the young McHenry behaved like an “anarchist.” 

As he aged, however, McHenry tempered his rhetoric and antics to gain influence—not just in a standing committee, but also in the clubby world of Republican Party leadership, where knowledge, patience, and composure matter. He would spend nearly five years as the party’s chief deputy whip.

Foxx, 32 years older than McHenry, entered Congress on a slower, quieter trajectory. 

She had held numerous mainstream posts in North Carolina, mostly in education, including as a college instructor and administrator. She was a Watauga County school board member before spending 10 years in the North Carolina Senate. She also was a member of the executive committee for the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s advisory panel, and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research’s board of directors. 

Although always a conservative, Foxx sometimes worked with Democrats earlier in her career. Since coming to Washington, however, she has become one of the House’s most strident partisans.

McHenry and Foxx declined to be interviewed for this article. To assess their careers, The Assembly examined their votes, speeches, and public statements; interviewed current and former members and staffers from Congress; and spoke with people who knew them from their pre-Washington days.

These sources describe two different career tracks: Foxx’s relatively straight line as a reliable partisan attacker; and McHenry’s twistier path to a more nuanced reputation and broader portfolio.

McHenry “learned a lot about how leaders have to lead and can’t be as ideological as they cut deals,” John Feehery, a longtime aide to GOP House leaders, including former Speaker Dennis Hastert, told The Assembly. 

Foxx, on the other hand, saw that “to advance up the chain, you have to be seen as a true-blue conservative,” Feehery said. 

Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who served 11 terms in the House before retiring this year, has a similar take. 

When Foxx and McHenry entered Congress, “Foxx had the stronger reputation, from her years in education policy,” said Cooper, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1975 and maintains ties to the state. 

McHenry, he said, had many critics due to his sharp-elbowed campaigns. But over time, Cooper said, Foxx veered further right while McHenry “opted for a path to party leadership,” which required a more reasoned approach to issues.

The arc of Foxx’s and McHenry’s career paths is a story of how two ambitious politicians surveyed a similar landscape and then settled on different strategies to leverage their assets, minimize barriers, and gain as much influence as possible in their chosen areas.

Tenacious and Unbending

Foxx’s 5th Congressional District borders Virginia and includes the college town of Boone, tourist areas such as Blowing Rock, and places hit hard by manufacturing closures, such as Lenoir, which lost hundreds of jobs when Broyhill Furniture left in 2006.

Foxx, 79, grew up in Avery County. She received a bachelor’s degree in English from UNC-Chapel Hill, and a master’s degree and doctorate in education from UNC-Greensboro. Most people call her “Dr. Foxx.” 

She taught sociology at Appalachian State University, and was president of Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine from 1987 to 1994, the year she began her 10-year run in the state Senate.

Dave Diamont of Pilot Mountain, a Democrat who spent 20 years in the North Carolina House and has known Foxx for decades, remembered her as an energetic and determined campaigner. On a campaign swing through his town, he recalled, Foxx bought a dress from a local shop.The next time she came back to campaign, she wore that dress. That’s very smart.”

A file photo of Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

In Congress, Foxx focused on education from the start. She became the education committee’s chairwoman in 2017, but for only two years. She was the ranking Republican for the next four years (while Democrats controlled the House), and now chairs the panel again.

Supporters and detractors alike describe her as tenacious and unbending. She fought long and hard for the 2013 Skills Act, which reauthorized a workforce  education law. Foxx said it would eliminate or streamline “35 ineffective and duplicative programs,” and improve a fund for workers, employers, and job seekers. President Obama signed a compromise version into law.

Doug Heye, a veteran Washington GOP staffer from North Carolina, said the law exemplifies how Foxx works on laws that help average people. They may not be sexy bills, he said, but “things like that will be her legacy.”

Foxx fiercely opposes significant reductions in student loan debts owed by millions of Americans, an issue now before the Supreme Court. 

“I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt, or even $80,000 of debt, because there’s no reason for that,” she said on the G. Gordon Liddy radio program in 2012. In a Chapel Hill appearance, then-President Obama denounced the comment (but not Foxx by name). A New York Times column was less kind, calling Foxx a “snarling Republican … whose lack of tolerance in many areas is not a secret.”

Foxx’s unyielding stances sometimes anger even fellow Republicans. For years she battled Louisiana GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy’s push for a College Transparency Act, which he said would help families compare colleges and their value. Foxx replied, “the more information the federal government has, the more they can control.” She called the bill “pure political hackery.”

Foxx also delayed passage of a narrowly focused student loan reform—backed by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) among others—to free divorced people from liability for their ex-spouses’ unpaid loans.

Cassidy and Burr (now retired), like most Republicans, won’t criticize Foxx publicly. But in 2018, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee had seen enough. 

Foxx was jeopardizing the entire farm bill by demanding lower sugar price subsidies. Such subsidies are controversial, but Congress’s long-standing tradition calls on members to stick with their party leaders on this type of issue. 

“She singles out sugar [and] denigrates the hard-working men and women, the farmers,” Chairman Michael Conaway of Texas declared on the House floor. “Her amendment would not save the taxpayer one dime.”

“I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt, or even $80,000 of debt, because there’s no reason for that.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.)

Foxx is now one of the Democrats’ most acid-tongued critics. To her, federal employees are “petty tyrants,” Biden’s latest budget plan is “a fiscal disaster” full of “reckless spending,” a “radical student loan agenda,” “woke politics” and money “for a socialist takeover of child care.” 

House Democrats are “influenced by Marxism,” and for them, “the idea of holding criminals accountable and preserving both law and order are too much to stomach.” In 2009, Foxx said President Obama’s landmark health care plan posed a greater threat than any terrorist “in any country.” (She later posted about getting Obama’s autograph at a GOP retreat).

Foxx doesn’t mind defying convention. Nine months after entering Congress, she was among 11 House members to oppose a $51.8 billion aid package for Hurricane Katrina victims. Sixteen years later she was assessed a $5,000 fine for running through a metal detector placed outside the Democratic-controlled House chamber after the Jan. 6 insurrection. (She appealed, and the House Ethics Committee waived the fine).

Now Foxx is championing parental rights in schools, a hot-button issue in many states, and recently shepherded a bill through a divided House. She also wants to bar transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams. 

“Progressivism and the lies it espouses have devastated our public education system,” Foxx says. It’s hardly radical, she says, to declare “men are not women. Women are not men.”

Foxx’s red-hot rhetoric puzzles some who knew her years ago.

Jack Betts, a veteran political reporter who worked with Foxx at the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, said that in the 1980s, “she was among the best board members that a [nonprofit] could have—helpful in every way, always willing to make a call to help with fundraising or to arrange a meeting.” 

She was clearly conservative, Betts said, “but also interested in getting things done in a bipartisan way.” He said he was surprised “when she became so outspoken, and often abrasively so. Why that happened I do not know.”

A Young Man in a Hurry

North Carolina’s 10th Congressional District is northwest of Charlotte, borders South Carolina, and includes Hickory, Statesville, and Shelby. A Republican has represented the district for more than 50 years. McHenry, 47, has lived in the area nearly all his life.

He started college at North Carolina State University, but transferred to Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic school west of Charlotte, where he studied history. From the start, he burned with ambition. As a college junior, he won the 1998 Republican nomination for a state legislative seat, but lost the general election. He founded a College Republicans chapter at Belmont Abbey, and used it to reach bigger things.

By 2000, McHenry was in Washington, hopping from job to job, barely warming the chair at each stop. After working for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, he briefly assisted the new Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao. 

Then he hustled back to North Carolina for another try at the N.C. House of Representatives. He enlisted old College Republican friends to knock on hundreds of doors and tell voters he was the most conservative candidate (although he had no track record to prove it). This time he won.

Barely six months into his legislative post in Raleigh, McHenry launched his successful 2004 bid for the U.S. House. In Washington, he raced from floor speeches to media opportunities, blasting Democrats and showing scant respect for colleagues. He called the House “a much more sophisticated junior high school.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) nominates Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for Speaker of House on Friday, January 6, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

People took notice. Washington Monthly published a scathing profile: “Getting Ahead in the GOP: Rep. Patrick McHenry and the art of defending the indefensible.” The left-of-center magazine excoriated him for enthusiastically defending Tom DeLay, then the House Majority Leader, in an ethics probe. It likened McHenry to a frat boy “willing to do the dirty work on behalf of crusades that the rest of his caucus will no longer touch.”

Unfazed, McHenry continued to infuriate Democrats (and some Republicans). They yearned for revenge, and saw their chance in 2007. McHenry had criticized “earmarks,” the local pet projects that lawmakers slip into massive spending bills. But a GOP anti-earmark crusader found that McHenry had quietly applied for his own modest earmark, to benefit a North Carolina nonprofit that trained displaced manufacturing sector workers. Critics hooted.

“I think penalizing hypocrisy is a legitimate response in politics,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Years later, McHenry admitted he deserved the rebuke. “Some lessons you learn,” he said ruefully. “Others you have to be taught.”

After the embarrassment, McHenry began reevaluating his behavior, ambition, and potential in Congress. 

“What changed for me was once I slowed down enough to respect the process and to respect the people that I served with in the institution,” he would later tell The News and Observer. “That took me three years of really making mistakes in order to figure out the better way to get things done.”

The humbler McHenry aspired to a party leadership role, and began casting tough but important votes that GOP hardliners such as Foxx refused to give. These included the 2013 vote to raise the debt ceiling and avert economic calamity. 

Predictably, it infuriated some constituents. In a letter to the Shelby Star, R.D. Hill of Lawndale wrote: “Just tell me when Mr. McHenry will be in Shelby or Hickory area to answer for betraying the people.”

McHenry stayed the course, and in 2014 was named House Republican chief deputy whip, assigned to help count and corral votes. 

Within a year, The Wall Street Journal profiled him. “When he arrived in Washington a decade ago,” the article said, “he needled Democrats, yelled on the House floor and pontificated on cable news. Since he became House Republicans’ chief deputy whip last summer, Mr. McHenry hasn’t so much as spoken at a Washington news conference.”

McHenry told the Journal: “Some [lawmakers] know on day one how to be effective in this institution; others, it takes time—and I was in that camp.”

Back home, McHenry continued to show a slightly more moderate side than Foxx. He chaired Jeb Bush’s 2016 North Carolina presidential campaign, while Foxx made no endorsements. By the state’s mid-March primary, Bush had dropped out and Trump was marching to the nomination—and the White House.

McHenry, like most Republicans who opposed Trump in the 2016 primary, quickly got on board. Even when he voted to certify Biden’s 2020 election, he issued a lengthy statement lavishly praising Trump and absolving him of any wrongdoing. He claimed he voted with Trump “more than any other member of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation.”

McHenry said he agreed to certify Biden’s election because the Constitution gave him no choice. “I cannot violate the oath I took,” he said.

Almost as an aside, McHenry added a more pragmatic and partisan reason to certify all 50 states’ election results. Rejecting Biden’s win, he said, could weaken the Electoral College. And liberals “know its elimination would empower the voters in corrupt and mismanaged blue states like California, Illinois, and New York to be decisive in electing our President.”

“That took me three years of really making mistakes in order to figure out the better way to get things done.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.)

By combining his election certification vote with his Trump-lauding statement, McHenry exemplified the balanced persona he strives to present: reasonable, serious lawmaker, and solid, reliable conservative. (His House website assures constituents he has “never voted for a tax increase.”)

The recent turmoil in U.S. banks is testing McHenry’s ability to walk that fine line. On March 21, he said the Biden administration was sending “the appropriate message” regarding the banking system’s safety. Within hours he announced he was returning all donations from a fundraiser with executives in Signature Bank’s boardroom only days before the bank collapsed. And two days later, McHenry demanded detailed information about the administration’s handling of the banking situation.

All in all, McHenry’s evolution from young hothead has drawn admirers. After Boehner left Congress, he told Politico that McHenry was someone who matured after an anarchistic start. He added: “McHenry’s going to be the speaker one day.”

That’s still conceivable, although McHenry is no longer officially in the leadership. Even after leaving the whip position, however, he remains close to now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Early this year, TV viewers saw McHenry buttonholing recalcitrant colleagues on the chamber floor, urging them to stop humiliating McCarthy by withholding the votes he needed to become speaker. 

During the struggle, The Hill named McHenry one of “three possible speakers-in-waiting” should McCarthy fail. McHenry was listed third, after Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Blocking Biden’s Agenda

If McHenry’s lengthy defense of his Biden-certification vote seemed suffused with political calculations, it helps to remember the iron law of Congress: Republicans and Democrats care intensely about winning their next election. 

For most, that means never losing their party primary (because the general election is not in doubt). This axiom pushes Republicans harder right, and Democrats harder left, so insurgents won’t outflank them on their party’s ideological fringes.

In this light, congressional insiders said, Foxx’s actions are predictable, and McHenry’s are intriguing but explainable. 

Both of them know they’re highly likely to keep winning their Republican primaries every two years. They won their last three primaries by at least 3-to-1 over their nearest challengers. Their solidly red districts also deliver comfortable general election victories. 

Nonetheless, Foxx takes few chances, reliably casting votes that please her GOP primary voters. McHenry follows a trickier path. It occasionally draws constituents’ wrath, but gives him access to party leadership.

David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat who spent 34 years in the House before recently retiring, often feuded with Foxx and McHenry. But Price, now a Duke University political scientist (and author of a book on Congress), says their differences are worth noting.

McHenry was a thorn to House Democrats in his early years, Price said, “but he has matured into a substantial member.” And his vote to certify Biden’s election “was very honorable.” Foxx, meanwhile, “has remained more difficult.”

For the next two years at least, Foxx and McHenry will play big roles in challenging—and often blocking—Biden’s agenda for education and financial policies. 

On March 23 alone, Foxx issued three press releases criticizing Democrats on parental rights, pension policies, and investment restrictions. She promises endless oversight and investigations. Administration officials should “think about investing in a parking space on Capitol Hill,” she said. “You will be here often.”

McHenry also plans heavy oversight of Democrats’ actions in financial areas. A recent subcommittee hearing was titled, “Holding the Biden Administration Accountable for Wasteful Spending and Regulatory Overreach.”

But McHenry appears destined to play a subtler role in Congress’s looming showdown over raising the federal debt limit yet again. The familiar debate invites theatrics, but failure to raise the ceiling would likely plunge the United States and globe into economic crisis. 

Republicans routinely say lifting the ceiling encourages more wasteful borrowing and spending. In fact, it allows the government to pay bills that lawmakers have already incurred. (And the federal debt grew by nearly $7.8 trillion under President Trump, Democrats note).

Republican leaders must acknowledge their rank-and-file members’ complaints. But when they control the House or Senate, these leaders know it would be politically disastrous to tank the economy. So they do a familiar dance: publicly denounce higher debt while quietly identifying which GOP colleagues will take the hit and deliver the necessary votes.

McHenry won’t roll over easily. Before Congress raises the debt ceiling, he said, Democrats “must be willing to come to the table to sensibly rein in excessive spending and bring fiscal sanity back to Washington.” But he has signaled that, when the time comes, he will vote to raise the limit.

It’s a lesson he learned after his freewheeling freshman days: Party leaders can’t function without foot soldiers willing to cast tough votes. Over the years, McHenry has become one of those soldiers. Foxx, like most of her colleagues, has not.

Charles Babington covered Congress and other beats for The News & Observer, The Washington Post and the Associated Press during his 36 years in journalism.