Will this turn into one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise?
Too soon to tell, but House Speaker John Boehner’s stunning Friday morning announcement that he plans to step down throws the GOP hierarchy into turmoil. As Congress’ third-ranking Republican, the Jefferson Parish congressman could now move up, stay in place — or even find himself out.
Scalise, who turns 50 next week, is talented, well-liked and ambitious. His political journey has been more tortoise than hare, if only because two of the state’s most brazenly driven politicians, David Vitter and Bobby Jindal, pushed to the head of the line when the 1st Congressional District seat opened up in 1999 and again in 2005.
That actually worked out fine for Scalise, who stayed in the Louisiana Legislature long enough to hone the political skills that would serve him well once he finally made it to Congress after Jindal’s 2007 gubernatorial victory.
When he joined Boehner’s leadership team as House majority whip last year, it was, in part, due to those skills. Scalise had already made his mark as head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, but he also maintained good relations with establishment politicians.
His politics aren’t quite as far right as the party’s angry, cohesive and often absolutist tea party wing, which has now organized into the Freedom Caucus. In one locally important break, Scalise worked with Democrats Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, and Maxine Waters, of California, to save the government-run — and heavily subsidized — federal flood insurance program by bypassing House Financial Services Committee, which is chaired by conservative purist Jeb Hensarling.
Yet, he speaks that group’s language, and his assignment was to try to build bridges, find order and keep things from spiraling out of control.
As Boehner’s chief vote-counter and emissary to those who considered him too willing to compromise, Scalise has had some big wins and some embarrassing losses.
But Friday’s news — which came amid yet another threat of a government shutdown, this time over efforts to defund Planned Parenthood — underscores both how little has changed in the year since Scalise became whip and how much the ongoing friction will shape the leadership fight. Not to mention how unresolved the basic question haunting today’s GOP is: Is it better to compromise and get some of what you want, or stand firm on principle and go down to defeat?
Scalise already has made it known that he may look to move up, and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, the Louisiana delegation member with the closest ties to Boehner, quickly announced that he’d back his colleague for majority leader, the House’s No. 2 post.
Conservatives who detested Boehner’s leadership, though, may not be in the mood to go along with anything that looks like the status quo. For a hint of what may be to come, consider the reaction from U.S. Rep. John Fleming, of Shreveport, a leader of the Freedom Caucus.
After the GOP caucus meeting at which Boehner announced his news, Fleming said that “we don’t want to rearrange the deck chairs. We need new leadership,” according to Tweet by a C-SPAN producer.
Out there among movement conservatives, the response was similar. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s also a presidential candidate, announced Boehner’s departure while addressing the annual Values Voter Summit, and the news was greeted with a standing ovation. Rubio himself said he thinks it’s time to “turn the page.”
Scalise’s ascent, ironically, was meant to do just that — to mold the majority party’s warring wings into something like a functional whole, and Scalise seems to have the background and toolkit to do it.
The fact that a year later Boehner essentially threw up his hands raises a deeper question: Is this crowd simply ungovernable?