Washington — U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, will seek election by his fellow House Republicans as majority leader if the incumbent in that job, Kevin McCarthy, of California, moves up from that post to succeed outgoing Speaker John Boehner, Scalise told members who have worked with him as whip in a call Friday, a source with knowledge of the call said.
The maneuvering was set off by Boehner’s surprise announcement Friday morning that he will step down as speaker at the end of October.
The office of Scalise’s fellow Louisiana Republican, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, sent out an email stating that Boustany and Scalise had spoken shortly after the Boehner announcement and that Boustany told Scalise “he thought he would make an excellent majority leader. He will be an active and vocal supporter of Congressman Scalise in a potential leadership race and hopes he will make a bid for the No. 2 spot.”
Scalise officially was playing it close to the vest, with his office saying it was not the time to discuss the future, but rather to thank Boehner for his service.
A House Republican staffer outside Scalise’s office also said Scalise is considered an active candidate for majority leader.
Should Scalise win election by House Republicans as their 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 whip — No. 3 in the House hierarchy — is responsible for lining up votes on the House floor for legislation endorsed by the leadership. The majority leader — the No. 2 post — plays a bigger role in developing policy with the speaker and schedules legislation for consideration.
Much depends on who wins the contest to succeed Boehner as speaker, a constitutional post elected by the entire House membership but effectively controlled by the majority party. Both the whip position and the majority leader spot are filled by Republicans caucusing and voting by secret ballot.
The elections are expected to be held close to Boehner’s departure. Both McCarthy and Scalise are likely to face competition in the contests.
It was another surprise that led to Scalise’s selection as whip in June 2014: 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 Scalise’s predecessor as whip, Kevin McCarthy, of California.
McCarthy is now regarded as the leading candidate to replace Boehner.
If McCarthy rises to the top spot, Scalise, 49, would be hoping to follow his path from whip to majority leader. He was first elected to Congress in 2008.
But that would require Scalise to win another election among House Republicans — and the internal political dynamics in the House have changed in the last 15 months.
In his whirlwind campaign for whip, Scalise ran as a red-state House member who was then chair 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.
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 House Freedom Caucus, or HFC, 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 earned Boehner, McCarthy and Scalise the enmity of right-wing activist groups, who 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, in avoidance of entanglement in a nasty intraparty fight.
As the anti-Boehner crescendo built, Scalise reportedly was making calls to fellow Republicans in search of their support in the post-Boehner environment. Scalise’s office declined to comment Friday on his plans.
Should he run for a vacant position of majority leader and lose, Scalise could be “odd man out” and absent from the hierarchy altogether, Fleming said.
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-supremacist 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 in his audience and that he regretted 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, and the incident could hamper any attempt by Scalise to climb the organizational chart.
Fleming said the names he has heard mentioned most as successors to Boehner are those of McCarthy and Tom Price, of Georgia, chair of the Budget Committee. Price is considered more conservative than McCarthy, but neither is a member of the HFC.
The HFC has not endorsed a candidate for speaker, nor has it decided whether it will put forth one of its own for the post, Fleming said.
“The Freedom Caucus is interested it aligning with various members who are interested in this to be sure that they include voices form our conservative wing in leadership,” he said. “We feel, just like average Republicans, that we’ve been ignored for too long.”
In meetings with constituents over the August recess, Freedom Caucus members tapped into “a groundswell of opposition” to Boehner for “not pushing back against the extreme left-wing socialist agenda of Barack Obama,” Fleming said.
“They were disappointed because the voters gave us majorities and yet things continued with business as usual in Washington with President Obama getting all his agenda items,” Fleming said.
Scalise’s display of loyalty to the leadership team since he became whip will not necessarily disqualify him from Freedom Caucus support, Fleming said.
“This is a process,” he said. “Steve, hopefully, was the first down payment on moving House leadership in a conservative direction. Now, I would hope that we could bring even more conservatives onto the leadership team.”
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