White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. Earnest discussed House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La., who admitted to speaking to a white supremacist group in 2002, the Sony cyberattack, and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The White House on Monday waded into a controversy over revelations that the House’s No. 3 Republican spoke to a white nationalist group 12 years ago, saying who the GOP has in leadership “says a lot about who they are.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeatedly said Scalise once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” Columnist Stephanie Grace, with The New Orleans Advocate, said Scalise made the remark to her as he was starting out in the Louisiana Legislature nearly 20 years ago. Scalise’s office did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Earnest said it’s up to Republicans to decide whether he retains his position. “There is no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference’s priorities and values are,” Earnest said.

“We’ve also heard a lot from Republicans particularly over the last few years, including the chairman of the Republican Party, about how Republicans need to broaden their appeal to young people and to women, to gays and to minorities, that the success of their party will depend on their ability to broaden that outreach,” Earnest said. “So it ultimately will be up to individual Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not elevating Mr. Scalise into leadership will effectively reinforce that strategy.”

The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also issued statements Monday attacking Scalise as Democrats sought to fan the controversy a day before Republicans formally assumed control of Congress. “As the new Congress begins, nothing discredits Republican claims of outreach and bringing people together more than their decision to keep Steve Scalise at the top tier of the elected leadership of their caucus,” DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.

The controversy was sparked last week when a liberal Louisiana blogger uncovered Scalise’s speech to a 2002 Louisiana convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, which called itself EURO.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke founded the group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group.

Scalise moved quickly to distance himself from the group, saying he opposes its views. As a state legislator at the time, Scalise said, he didn’t have much staffing and didn’t always know details of the groups he was invited to address. He said the speech was a mistake he now regrets, and party leaders have backed him.

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal defended the congressman in response to the White House criticism.

“I don’t think it would be smart for the Republican conference to take advice from this White House,” Jindal said in an interview. “Steve’s a good, decent man. I continue to support him. I know his heart. He’s not a racist.”

Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.