Washington — Politics, as the cliché has it, makes strange bedfellows. It’s been bit of a strange week in D.C., what with “cromnibus” — a word that, until a month ago, was probably never spoken by anyone in the history of the English language — on the lips of everyone in Congress. If not bedfellows, exactly, the week made for some intriguing associations and behaviors.
Consider Steve Scalise, the Republican congressman from Jefferson. Elected to the House in 2008, he rose to prominence in 2013 as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus that includes most members of the House Republican majority and that tries to steer it to the right.
In June, Scalise was elevated by his fellow House Republicans to the No. 3 position in their leadership, majority whip. In his campaign for the position, Scalise played the ideology card, arguing the leadership team would benefit from inclusion of a hard-right member — Scalise earned a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union for his 2013 voting record — from a deep red state.
After he won, Scalise said his “seat at the leadership table” would empower him to “advocate for … conservative values.”
But it’s not quite that simple.
As whip, Scalise isn’t charged so much with determining policy — that’s more the job of Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California — as with lining up Republican votes on the House floor in support of bills McCarthy and Boehner want passed.
“Being on the leadership team does actually in many ways make you less free,” John Fleming, of Minden, an RSC member with a lifetime ACU rating of 96.8, said in June. “He’s going to be in a little tighter lane that he would be as a rank-and-file member.”
So it was that Scalise worked arduously in the past week to corral Republican votes for the cromnibus, the package of bills to finance the federal government through Sept. 30 and avert a shutdown. Helping to whip votes for the bill was … Barack Obama, the Democratic president who is the focus of concentrated wrath from Scalise and the Republicans on a host of issues. Many House Democrats objected to provisions unrelated to government financing that Republicans had tacked onto the bill. It was a close-run thing, with the measure passing late Thursday, 219-206.
The bill “makes your priorities our priorities,” Scalise tweeted in celebration on Twitter, drawing a flurry of angry comments from right-wingers incensed by what they regarded as a Republican sell-out to Obama: “lipstick on a pig” was one of the milder comments. Scalise needn’t have been surprised: He, along with Boehner, McCarthy and other GOP leaders, had appeared on hit lists in the right-wing blogosphere for days leading up to the vote.
Fleming voted against the cromnibus because it failed to cut off funding for Obama’s executive order waiving deportation of certain undocumented immigrants. But he’s not convinced Scalise swallowed his own conservative principles to provide loyal service to leadership.
“I don’t know that he’s been whip long enough for that to be in play,” Fleming said Thursday. “I don’t know that he wouldn’t support it anyway.”
For Democrats, one of the most objectionable Republican add-ons to the bill was a repeal of a provision in the Dodd-Frank legislation — passed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash to rein in Wall Street speculation — that required banks to remove trading in certain financial derivatives from the protection of federal insurance coverage. The idea was to shield taxpayers, who ultimately underwrite the coverage, from the risks inherent in the derivatives trading.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor attacking the provision, and urged a no vote on the cromnibus. And despite White House support for the overall bill, the Dodd-Frank repeal provoked scorn from Obama.
And from … David Vitter, the stalwart Republican senator from Louisiana (lifetime ACU rating: 92.4). Vitter is a consistent opponent of “too big to fail” legislation that favors Wall Street banks, and on Thursday, he wrote a letter to House and Senate leaders urging removal of the Dodd-Frank repeal from the cromnibus.
“If Wall Street banks want to gamble, Congress should force them to pay for their losses, and not put the taxpayers on the hook for another bailout,” Vitter wrote.
The letter was co-signed by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. His lifetime ACU rating is 6.85.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau.