Washington — The campaign for U.S. House majority leader by Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, took a couple of hits Monday when two influential House Republicans endorsed one of Scalise’s rivals, Tom Price, of Georgia.
The endorsements came from Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, and Jeb Hensarling, of Texas.
Ryan is chairman of the powerful Ways & Means Committee and was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. Ryan is widely respected by House Republicans and is often discussed as a potential House leader himself, but he has decided to remain as committee chairman — a post he would have to surrender if he entered leadership.
Hensarling is chairman of the Financial Services Committee. He is considered part of the party’s right wing and is well regarded in conservative circles. He, too, has declined to seek a leadership post on his own.
Scalise’s bid for the job of majority leader — the No. 2 post in the House hierarchy — was set in motion by the surprise announcement Friday by House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, that he will step down from the top spot at the end of October. Scalise said he will try to step up from whip, which is the No. 3 position, if the current majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, of California, moves up to speaker, as he is favored to do.
The speaker’s position is constitutional and voted on by the full House in public session. The other posts in the majority leadership are filled by Republican members voting by secret ballot.
Scalise, 49, was elected in June 2014 as whip, responsible for counting and corralling Republican votes for legislation endorsed by the leadership. The majority leader controls the flow of legislation on the floor and consults more closely with the speaker on policy.
Should Scalise win election by House Republicans as majority leader, he would be the highest-ranking member of Congress from Louisiana since Hale Boggs, a New Orleans Democrat, held the post of House majority leader in 1971-72, before disappearing on a flight in Alaska.
The leadership elections have not been scheduled, but likely will take place no later than the third week in October, a House Republican staff member said. It is anticipated that the contests will be decided in order of rank, so that if Scalise were to lose his try for majority leader, he could remain as whip, unless he was actively voted out of that position.
It was another surprise that led to Scalise’s selection as whip last year: the defeat of Eric Cantor, who was then majority leader, in a Virginia primary. Cantor soon announced his own resignation, and that opening was filled by McCarthy, Scalise’s predecessor as whip.
In his whirlwind campaign for whip, Scalise ran as a red-state House member who was then chairman of the Republican Study Conference, a policy group that comprises a majority of House Republicans and seeks to drive the party to the right. Boehner, who is from Ohio, as well as McCarthy and Cantor, represented blue states and were regarded as relatively moderate, and Scalise talked of bringing a conservative voice to the leadership table.
Price, 60, can make the same pitch, and he, too, comes from a red state. Price, first elected to the House in 2004, was chairman of the RSC in 2009-10, succeeding Hensarling.
After the 2014 elections that expanded the Republican majority in the House, a group of deeply conservative Republicans, including John Fleming, of Minden, formed the Freedom Caucus, advocating a yet more conservative agenda. That has led the Freedom Caucus, which includes about 40 members, into repeated conflict with leadership, including Scalise. Scalise has voted with Boehner and McCarthy on issues that have split the Republican majority, such as the approval of a homeland security funding bill in the spring that did not defund Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive orders waiving deportation for certain undocumented immigrants — a measure that passed because most Democrats joined a minority of Republican members in support of it.
Accommodations like that have earned Boehner, McCarthy and Scalise the enmity of right-wing activist groups, who have called for their ouster in radio commercials and on the Internet. More recent disagreements with Boehner over the defunding of Planned Parenthood and other issues increased the pressure on him from the right, including from the Freedom Caucus, with some members fomenting a coup against him — and that evidently led Boehner to quit, thereby preventing a nasty intraparty fight.
The Freedom Caucus has said it will interview candidates for leadership and vote as a bloc.
Besides Scalise and Price, other potential candidates for majority leader include Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, and Peter Roskam, of Illinois.
Rodgers, 46, holds the No. 4 position in leadership as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, the official association of House Republicans. Although from a blue state, she is strongly anti-abortion. The mother of a child with Down syndrome, she would bring both gender diversity and an appealing personal story to the upper ranks of House leadership. She was first elected to Congress in 2004.
Roskam, 54, is another blue-stater with solid conservative credentials. Elected to Congress in 2006, he was McCarthy’s chief deputy whip when Cantor stepped down, but lost to Scalise in the campaign to replace McCarthy as whip. He played a key role in the House earlier this month in engineering an alternative approach to the Iran deal than what Boehner originally intended.
But Scalise can play a strong hand of his own. As whip, he has in place a team of deputies experienced at member persuasion who can be enlisted in support of his candidacy. And although Scalise took some heat over the Republicans’ disarray on legislation such as the Homeland Security measure, he has also received credit for successes, such as the approval in March of a budget plan for the federal government and a bill that permanently changes the way doctors are reimbursed by Medicare, ending 17 years of temporary fixes.
A bid by Scalise to move up in the ranks would likely resurrect another issue that surfaced since his accession to whip: His 2002 speech in Metairie, while a state representative, to a group that had gathered for a meeting of a white-rights organization founded by notorious neo-Nazi David Duke.
The controversy over that speech 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. Although some Democrats urged his resignation, Boehner and McCarthy stood by him, and he weathered the crisis.
But the spotlight shines brighter on the majority leader than on the whip. The incident may not hurt Scalise with his fellow House Republicans, among whom he is generally well-liked, but it won’t help.
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