Washington — One year ago, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, ranked as a leader of the conservatives in the House.
He was chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus that included most House Republicans and that aimed to push the party’s agenda to the right. He won that job in 2013, the same year he earned recognition from the American Conservative Union as one of 15 “defenders of liberty” in the House for his perfect voting record of 100 in the ACU ratings.
Last week, the House gave final congressional approval to a bill to finance the Department of Homeland Security through Sept. 30. The measure included no provisions to defund Democratic President Barack Obama’s executive orders shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, and the legislation was bitterly opposed by the right wing.
Of the 12 “defenders of liberty” still serving in the House, only one voted for the bill: Steve Scalise. The four other Republicans from Louisiana all voted “no,” as did 167 of the 245 Republicans who make up the party’s House majority. Of the 75 Republicans to join the solid bloc of Democrats voting “yes” in the 257-167 result, Scalise is the only one from the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Just a couple of weeks before, Scalise joined the House in passing a version of the bill that did include defunding of Obama’s executive orders. After that vote, he issued a strongly worded news release saluting the result and condemning Obama’s orders as illegal and unconstitutional.
So what happened?
Success happened, for Scalise.
In June, Scalise was chosen by his fellow House Republicans as their majority whip. The whip, who is responsible for lining up votes on the House floor in support of the agenda set by the Republican leadership, ranks third in the hierarchy, behind Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, at the top, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California.
Part of Scalise’s appeal to the Republicans who elected him was that he would add red-state representation to a leadership team that had included members only from blue states. He pledged to bring strong conservative values to the leadership table.
But there’s only one seat at the head of that table, and it’s occupied by the speaker.
Unlike the post of majority leader in the Senate — held by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — the speaker of the House is a constitutional position elected by the entire House membership. But under the two-party system, the head of the majority party in the House fills the job. That means that Boehner doesn’t get to be speaker unless the Republicans hold the majority — and that means he looks at the big picture, at congressional districts in blue states as well as red states.
After clearing the U.S. House last month, the original Homeland Security bill went to the Senate, where the rules give more power to the minority. Senate Democrats blocked the measure, and with funding for the department about to run out, McConnell evidently decided that the political blowback from a shutdown would damage the Republicans more than the Democrats.
So the Senate stripped the legislation of the provisions that undid Obama’s executive orders and sent the “clean” bill back to the House. Ultimately, Boehner came to the same conclusion as McConnell did. Despite the support of less than a third of the members of his own party but knowing Democrats would vote for the clean bill, Boehner pushed it through. He voted for it, so did McCarthy and so, as a loyal member of the team, did Scalise.
Scalise “is committed to being constructive and getting things done,” said a source within the Louisiana Republican delegation who did not wish to be named. “That’s what leadership is all about. Unfortunately, it’s not always pretty.”
Back in July, as Scalise was officially taking over as whip, Republican Rep. John Fleming, of Minden, said, “In some cases, particularly bills that are less conservative, he may have his own leanings, maybe to vote against the bill, and yet he’ll have to support it and urge others to support it.
“Being on the leadership team does actually in many ways make you less free,” Fleming said. “He’s going to be in a little tighter lane that he would be as a rank-and-file member.”
For Scalise, whose mostly suburban New Orleans district is one of the reddest in the country, that may carry political risks of its own.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.