WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, pulled an upset Thursday and will chair the largest conservative caucus in Congress through 2014.
Scalise was chosen by secret ballot to lead the Republican Study Committee over Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., who was the recommended pick of the committee’s founders and past chairpersons, who traditionally make the selection.
Scalise’s selection marks just the second time ever the membership of more than 160 House Republicans overruled the recommendation of the founders, he said.
The first occurrence was with Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
“That makes the win that much more important,” Scalise said in the Cannon House Office Building just after the private vote.
“It’s a great honor to have the majority support of the Republican Study Committee. It’s a distinct honor.”
Scalise has called the caucus the “conservative conscience” of Congress.
The Republican Study Committee in recent years has embraced the tea party movement and, at times, butted heads with the Republican House leadership led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on budgetary and other matters.
Scalise positioned himself as the candidate who could assert the conservative agenda but also work with the party leadership.
Some right-wing critics argued that made Scalise the less conservative option than Graves, but Scalise scoffed at that notion.
“The true test of being a conservative — you don’t have to just talk the talk; you have to walk the walk,” Scalise said. “I think it’s our leadership style that’s the difference.”
He said he can push the Republican leadership more to the ideological right while also getting things done in a federal government that will continue to be politically divided.
Scalise has made a name for himself nationally the past couple of years as the recruitment vice chairman for the National Republican Congressional Committee and he has eyed the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee for some time.
Since the committee was re-established, Scalise is the first from Louisiana to chair the caucus.
But former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen served as the chairman of a previous iteration of the caucus in the 1970s.
While Scalise’s new leadership post does not add any direct benefits to Louisiana, the position does potentially give the Louisiana delegation a more powerful voice in Congress.
The only other members of the Louisiana delegation in the Republican Study Committee are Reps. John Fleming, R-Minden, and Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia.
“The work of the Republican Study Committee is crucial, and Congressman Scalise follows in the steps of a long line of strong conservative leaders,” Fleming said in an email response while he was in a GOP organizational meeting Thursday. “I support Steve’s leadership of the RSC and look forward to the vital role we will play in the 113th Congress.”
Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, was previously a member of the Republican Study Committee but he opted out of it more than a year ago.
However, John Cummins, Cassidy’s press secretary, said Cassidy has decided to rejoin the caucus starting in January.