Washington — Last week was a good week for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson — and in terms of his battered public image over his recent performance as a member of the House leadership, it must have come as a welcome relief.
“You can’t focus on the day-to-day criticism of the job,” Scalise said. “Because, you know, my job is to pass good conservative policy. You look at what we did on the budget: We put a really strong vote on the board. And we proved to people that you can actually get it done.”
Getting it done has turned out to be a difficult task for Scalise and his fellow Republicans in Congress, who gained control of the Senate and expanded their House majority in the 2014 elections. That put the spotlight on their ability to govern once Congress convened in January.
Scalise, 49, has been caught in the beam more than most.
A congressman since 2008 with a strongly conservative voting record, Scalise was elected by House Republicans last year as majority whip. That’s the No. 3 position in House leadership, behind Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California. Scalise’s job is to corral Republican votes for bills endorsed by the leadership, and to keep an accurate tally of who’s for and against legislation before it comes up for a decision on the House floor.
On Wednesday, the House succeeded in passing a Republican budget plan for the federal government; 17 Republicans voted “no” on what was otherwise a party-line split of 228 to 199. On that vote, the Republican leadership overcame extensive wrangling between the party’s defense hawks, who favor more military spending, and its fiscal hawks, who are more mindful of deficits, that seriously threatened the prospects for the legislation. (The defense hawks prevailed.)
Then on Thursday, the House voted 392-37 for a bipartisan measure to change how Medicare pays doctors, ending 17 years’ worth of temporary fixes. Republicans provided 33 of the votes against approval.
“People want to focus on what you’re not able to do, sometimes,” Scalise said. “But when you look at the things we’ve actually accomplished in these first three months, it’s pretty historic.”
That’s the good news, from Scalise’s perspective. What has generated bad news for him and his leadership colleagues has been their apparent missteps and miscalculations.
There was an anti-abortion bill, timed for approval on the day of a massive anti-abortion rally in Washington, that was pulled from a vote on the House floor at the 11th hour, with a weaker measure substituted for it.
There was an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law, also scratched from the floor lineup at the last minute.
And in what was judged the biggest failure of all — it was called a humiliating setback in some news reports — the House failed on a 203-224 vote on Feb. 27 to approve a three-week extension of funding for the Department of Homeland Security, with 52 Republicans breaking ranks with their leaders.
A few days later, the Republican leadership relied on Democratic votes to pass a measure to fund the department through Sept. 30, without any restrictions on President Barack Obama’s executive orders waiving enforcement of immigration laws for millions of undocumented immigrants; Scalise was one of the few red-state Republicans voting “yes.”
Media accounts put much of the blame for the Feb. 27 meltdown on Scalise, given that it’s his responsibility to keep a tally of how all GOP members will vote on a measure. But, he said last week, “We’ve never been wrong on a whip count (on a bill) that has gone to the floor.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Lafayette Republican regarded as friendly to the House leadership, said of the Feb. 27 vote, “I was very surprised when they brought the bill to the floor.”
Boustany, first elected in 2004 and the longest-serving House member from Louisiana, ultimately voted for the bill. He said he had approached a member of Boehner’s staff that day to ask about support for the measure.
“I supposed it was within striking distance, one or two votes off,” Boustany said. “He said, ‘We’re not close.’
“I’m not sure what they were trying to accomplish there,” Boustany said. “I don’t think that’s a good reflection on leadership.”
Generally, it’s the majority leader who decides whether and when to bring bills up for votes on the House floor, with the speaker the ultimate arbiter.
Scalise is diplomatic about the process: “The entire leadership team makes the decisions,” he said. “I don’t schedule floor operations, but our leadership team as a whole talks through these things.”
But a source close to the whip operation said decisions about calling bills up for votes “happen above our head. ... When you bring information forward, someone else decides if it still progresses to the floor.”
The leadership may push ahead with a bill even if its count shows it is a few votes short, in hopes of rounding up some additional votes when the moment of decision arrives, Republican Rep. John Fleming, of Minden, said.
“Oftentimes, they feel that if they are within a few votes, maybe within 10, that they can persuade enough people who don’t want to be, in this case, a ‘yes,’ but who’ll take one for the team,” Fleming said.
“It’s a threshold thing,” he said. “You’re moving that bill forward, you think you have the votes, you’re trying to peak out with the yeses — but all of a sudden something pops up and you start to lose some of the yeses. To lock it all down at once is pretty difficult.”
Since a Republican-driven 2010 reform eliminated budget earmarks — special appropriations, identified with a particular member, for federal projects in his or her district — leadership cannot exercise as much leverage over members as it once did, Boustany said.
“Earmarks were an important tool for the leadership team to help marshal votes,” he said, because it could promise to allow or block them. The leadership can still help a member with fundraising, either by appearing at events in the member’s district or by helping direct party support their way. Beyond that, Boustany said, the leaders can dangle choice committee assignments.
“It’s a little more difficult,” he said. “They have to build a relationship, and persuade and cajole, but there really aren’t that many tools available.”
Both Boustany and Fleming give Scalise high marks in the relationship-building department.
“Steve is very personable,” Boustany said. “He’s a very good communicator.
“It’s also important to understand each member’s district and needs,” he said. “Steve’s taken time to study all that and learn it.”
And Fleming said, “I think he’s a natural when it comes to being whip.”
“You may vote differently than he would like you to vote, but it never becomes a relationship problem,” he said. “It never becomes a barrier.
“You want to be persuasive but not coercive, and I think that’s difficult to do — and he does that very well.”
Also, Fleming said, “he engages early: ‘What do you feel comfortable with so you can be a yes, without gutting the entire bill? How can we get to a compromise position?’
“I think that’s huge,” Fleming said — adding that Scalise’s approach contrasts with the style of McCarthy, who was the whip before him.
For Scalise, a major challenge is dealing with the disparate voices within the Republican membership, or conference — voices like that of Fleming, one of the founders this year of the right-wing Freedom Caucus.
“Our role is to continually be an anchor for conservatism, to pull not only our leadership in a conservative direction but the entire House of Representatives,” Fleming said.
He voted against the three-week DHS extension on Feb. 27. Although the Freedom Caucus does not publicize its membership list, it’s likely that many of the roughly 40 Republicans who have joined it also voted “no” that day.
“You’ve got a lot of different coalitions within our Republican conference,” Scalise said. “There are a lot of strong viewpoints that sometimes conflict with each other.”
Scalise said he enjoys working to combine the various interest groups in support of Republican policy.
“Sometimes you’re able to do that,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not able to resolve those differences.
“In this town, it’s hard to get anything done. I think most people recognize that.”
Follow Gregory Roberts, of The Advocate Washington bureau, on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.