Washington — Still short of his 50th birthday and just seven years after his election to Congress, Louisiana’s U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise stands on the verge of assuming the second most powerful position in the House of Representatives: majority leader.
But a contentious vote on the U.S. House floor last week illustrates the difficulties the Jefferson Parish lawmaker will face in closing the deal when House Republicans meet Thursday to select their leadership team — and the daunting challenges that will confront him if he wins.
“It’s no secret that you’ve got incredibly diverse ideologies on Capitol Hill within the Republican Party,” U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said Thursday.
Wednesday’s 277-151 vote approved a short-term spending plan that averted a midnight shutdown of the federal government. What the plan didn’t include was a provision to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization that has been the target of conservative outrage since the release of undercover videos showing executives supposedly discussing their prices for providing human tissue from aborted fetuses to the medical-research market.
House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, urged his fellow Republicans to vote for the plan without the Planned Parenthood funding cutoff. His leadership team followed his cue: current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California; Scalise, who ranks third in the hierarchy as majority whip; and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, which is the formal organization of all 247 House Republicans.
But an overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House voted no, including Graves and Louisiana’s other GOP congressmen: Ralph Abraham, of Alto; Charles Boustany, of Lafayette; and John Fleming, of Minden. The measure passed only because of unanimous support from the Democratic minority.
“I don’t think Steve’s vulnerable over that vote,” Boustany said. “That vote is just an outward symptom of the overall divisions within our conference.”
It was those divisions that prompted Boehner’s surprise announcement Sept. 25 that he will step down as speaker at the end of October, setting off a chain reaction of jockeying for leadership positions.
McCarthy is widely expected to succeed Boehner, and Scalise is angling to succeed McCarthy. Scalise was elected whip by the Republicans in June 2014, following McCarthy in that post. McCarthy had moved up a spot after Majority Leader Eric Cantor was unexpectedly defeated in a Virginia primary.
Seeking a confrontation
Boehner wanted to defuse the crisis over Planned Parenthood.
Many Republicans think the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, triggered by a partisan standoff over repealing Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 health law, damaged their party’s reputation, and they wanted to avoid a repeat.
Although Republicans won a majority of the Senate in the 2014 elections to go with an expanded House majority, the Democratic minority in the Senate can block most legislation there, under Senate rules. In any case, Obama could veto any Planned Parenthood defunding measure, and Republicans do not have the votes for an override.
But many Republicans in the House advocate a fiercer, more confrontational approach — and they say their constituents demand it. Those Republicans want to push their views to the limit, even if their chances of ultimately prevailing are small.
Fleming, who is in that camp, applies a football analogy: Even a 50-point underdog shows up to play the game and sometimes overcomes the odds to win.
Early this year, Fleming helped organize the House Freedom Caucus, a faction of about 40 House Republicans determined to move the party hard to the right. Although well short of a majority of the Republican Conference, the caucus potentially holds the balance of power in the entire 435-seat House. And unlike the other majority leadership posts, which are filled by the Republican Conference by secret ballot, the position of speaker is a constitutional one, elected by all House members.
That means that if the House Freedom Caucus abandoned Boehner, its members could join with the Democrats to unseat him (or force Boehner to rely on the Democrats to save his skin — an untenable position for a Republican leader). As the Planned Parenthood controversy built, such a coup fomented within the caucus. Boehner’s decision to quit took the hammer out of the hands of his Republican opponents and opened the way to Wednesday’s vote averting a shutdown.
The escape is only temporary: The funding bill expires in December. And the House Freedom Caucus is not going away.
Fleming is the only Louisiana Republican not yet backing Scalise. Fleming says the caucus will interview candidates for the leadership positions, and he hopes its members will vote as a bloc (although one of them already has endorsed Scalise).
Fleming has not tipped his hand, but he did say he is not in favor of everyone in leadership simply moving up a notch, a pattern that would match a win by McCarthy as speaker and by Scalise as majority whip. And Rep. Dave Brat, the caucus member who knocked off Cantor and took his House seat, said he wants to hold leadership accountable for — in his view— abandoning conservative principles in legislative fights, including one earlier this year over homeland-security funding that paralleled last week’s accommodation on the shutdown.
The House Freedom Caucus is not strong enough to elect one of its own as speaker and probably not as majority leader. But some of its members and others are casting about for a right-wing standard-bearer, despite Scalise’s strong conservative voting record overall.
“There are divisions within the Republican conference that are lingering,” Boustany said.
An effort last week to draft Rep. Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina — the high-profile chairman of the select committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya — as a candidate for majority leader fizzled when he said he wasn’t interested, notwithstanding a meeting he had with Boehner, who reportedly sought to recruit him to provide cover on the right for McCarthy in the speaker’s post.
Scalise is dealing from strength in his run for majority leader. He executed a successful campaign for whip in 2014, scoring an impressive first-ballot win over two other candidates. As whip, he’s in regular contact with members throughout the conference, checking on where they stand and learning their concerns. He’s performed effectively as a fundraiser for his colleagues, a key element of leadership assignments.
And even though he took some heat over the Republicans’ disarray on legislation such as the homeland security measure, he also has received credit for successes, such as the approval of a budget plan for the federal government and a bill that permanently changes the way doctors are reimbursed by Medicare.
Willing to listen
“He’s always very straight with you,” said Rep. Peter King, of New York, a Scalise supporter who is one of the most moderate Republicans in the House. “He’s been extremely effective and extremely honest. Steve has shown, as a leader, that he can bring all people together.”
Graves praises Scalise for his willingness to meet with members and hear them out, rather than dictating an agenda.
“The conditions within Congress and within the Republican Conference now are clearly ones rejecting the status quo,” Graves said. “That has not been lost on any of the leadership candidates. The leaders recognize that the rank-and-file members of Congress are demanding an entirely different direction and style.”
Scalise can deliver on that score, Boustany said: “Steve believes in the bottom-up approach.”
One potential liability for Scalise is the controversy over his 2002 speech in Metairie, while a state representative, to a group that had gathered for a meeting of a white-supremacist organization founded by notorious neo-Nazi David Duke. The issue erupted in late 2014 when a Louisiana blogger spotlighted the event. Scalise said he did not know of any Duke links among his audience and that he regrets his appearance.
The issue did not cost him the job as whip, whose responsibility is to count and corral votes for the leadership agenda, but the spotlight is stronger on the majority leader, who plays a more prominent role in setting policy with the speaker and controls the flow of legislation.
The only announced challenger to Scalise as of Friday was Rep. Tom Price, of Georgia, the chairman of the Budget Committee. Price is popular with conservatives, and he voted against the Boehner-backed package Wednesday. He also has been endorsed by Reps. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, and Jeb Hensarling, of Texas, both influential Republican committee chairmen.
But nominations won’t close until the conference meets to make its choices. And if McCarthy’s bid for speaker is derailed, then there likely would be no vacancy for Scalise to mount to.
“There’s a lot of time between now and the Thursday election,” Boustany said, a week before the voting.
One thing is certain: By then, Scalise, who was born in New Orleans on Oct. 6, 1965, will have turned 50.
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