Washington — Nobody said it would be easy.
But to U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, it might have looked Tuesday as if his new job as House majority whip would be a piece of cake: He awoke in Washington to a glowing story in a national political newspaper praising his skill and charm in rounding up votes for the Republican response to the immigration crisis — the one created by a surge of undocumented children from Central America crossing into the United States unaccompanied by adults.
Scalise hadn’t even officially stepped into the whip position; that would come Thursday, six weeks after House Republicans elected him as whip, the No. 3 spot in their House leadership.
But by Thursday, the tune had changed: Hard-right conservatives rebelled against the package pushed by Scalise on behalf of Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, and new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, and the leadership yanked the proposal from the floor-vote schedule. Now the Beltway media tabbed Scalise as the week’s biggest loser.
Yet by Friday night, with the House working an extra day beyond the planned start of its August recess, Scalise was smiling and upbeat on the House floor as members finally approved an immigration package that had been bent rightward to draw more conservative votes.
“This is important legislation that actually sends a strong message that we are going to take this issue seriously,” Scalise said in a speech on the floor shortly before the vote. “We’re going to actually solve this crisis. And if the Senate wants to be serious about doing their job, and if the president wants to be serious about doing his job, they ought to come back here and pass something of their own.
“But they won’t,” he said. “But that’s no reason to fail to lead. That’s why the House is leading.”
The legislation won’t become law anytime soon: The Senate started its recess on schedule Thursday, and it must approve the package for President Barack Obama to sign it, unlikely prospects in any case. But House passage, on an overwhelmingly party-line vote, allows Republicans heading out on campaigns to tout their bold action to address the crisis, while excoriating the “do-nothing” Senate and its Democratic majority (whose members are sure to counter that they passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 that the House has yet to consider).
In the end, the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat won Scalise high marks from some of this fellow House Republicans.
“I think he really exceeded past whip operations,” John Fleming, of Minden, said. “If anything, he’s brought it to a higher level.”
Fleming is one of the most conservative members of the House — he was one of the gang of 13 who met Wednesday night in the office of Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, to stake out a hard-right line of attack on the initial House leadership package — and he was widely quoted in opposition to the proposal in the days before the planned Thursday vote.
In the past, Fleming said, the leadership would have folded its tent Thursday and headed to the airport. But this time, he said, they heeded the members’ insistence on taking action and listened to the conservatives’ demands.
And because McCarthy moved up from majority whip to replace departing Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Scalise stands out as the only new face on the team.
“He’s implemented a much more input-driven whip operation,” Fleming said.
Another of the Cruz confidantes, Randy Neugebauer, of Texas, said Friday, “What was so good about this is that this leadership team is listening to the members.”
The drama “absolutely” was a learning experience for Scalise, Neugebauer said.
“You talk about your first assignment right out of the box — it’s a pretty big lift, on a very important subject,” he said. “I really have a lot of respect for the way the leadership team handled this. They could have easily said, ‘The heck with this, were going home,’ but they listened.
“I think that’s kind of part of leadership: sometimes listening to, instead of telling, the people that you’re elected to lead.”
On Friday, both Fleming and Neugebauer voted for the revised proposal.
“Sometimes, baking a cake or building a house — I’m a homebuilder — sometimes we had to alter the plans some. As we were building the house, we realized that how the plan looked wasn’t necessarily the best way to build that house.
“I think what we realized yesterday was that we had a set of plans, but it wasn’t quite the right set of plans,” Neugebauer said. “We made a change order and made it better.”
The roller-coaster ride for Scalise took him down a track that may define his term as whip.
Scalise was elected to the post as a representative of his party’s conservative wing, a red-state addition to what had been a solidly blue-state leadership cadre. He spent the previous 18 months as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an assemblage that includes most House Republicans and that seeks to advance an avowedly conservative agenda.
But that advocacy role is different from participating in the management of a majority that includes moderates and conservatives, from red states and blue states — a majority whose continued sustenance in congressional elections is essential to the power that Scalise, Boehner and McCarthy enjoy.
Scalise has said repeatedly that he wants to bring forth conservative policies that will unite Republicans behind them. It could be argued that, ultimately, is what happened in the House on Friday night — although the ride to that destination was a bumpy one.
Follow Gregory Roberts, of The Advocate Washington bureau, on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC