When the often fractious U.S. House majority steps out of line, it's Whip Steve Scalise's job to wrangle unruly lawmakers and usher through votes needed for critical legislation.
But Scalise, a former state legislator who is now Louisiana's longest-serving and highest-ranking member in Congress, is publicly staying out of the stalemate that has ensnared the Louisiana State Capitol of late.
After coming to loggerheads in the 17-day, revenue-focused special session Monday, the GOP-controlled Louisiana House is scheduled to return to Baton Rouge on Wednesday with a renewed concentration on shoring up the state's finances before temporary tax measures adopted in 2016 expire June 30.
"Obviously, there are some philosophical issues dealing with the taxes that are expiring and what do you do about that," Scalise said in a recent interview, when asked for his take on what's happening in state politics and his old stomping grounds in the State House. "I think it's not just that you have some people who don't want to work with this guy or that guy, but there are some changes that our state needs to make."
Scalise, a Jefferson Republican who survived a near-fatal gun injury during a mass shooting last year, has often been mentioned as a possible rival to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in his 2019 re-election bid. Though Scalise has largely dismissed the gubernatorial run speculation, he hasn't ruled it out entirely.
Scalise spent a dozen years in the Capitol in Baton Rouge before heading to Congress. He said he thinks deep philosophical partisan divides back home have yet to be addressed in the state's seemingly never-ending cycle of budget shortfalls.
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"If you look at our state, we're still operating a lot of the vestiges of Huey Long. You look at the other Southern states around us, and they have changed to meet the new environment and have thrived because of it," he said. "Our state's lagged behind."
The state House, which needs a bipartisan 70 votes to pass revenue-raising measures, has been badly fractured between Republicans who favor relying on cuts or changes in the sales tax to bridge the looming billion-dollar budget gap and Democrats who want to alter the state income tax structure before agreeing to a continued sales tax hike.
Two bills on the House calendar are seen as critical to any compromise: One would cut a tax break for middle- and upper-income people who itemize deductions when they file their taxes each year – a Democratic priority. The other is a Republican-backed sales tax proposal that would allow the state to continue collecting taxes on some items exempted before the 2016 changes and to extend 0.25 percent of sales tax that would otherwise expire June 30.
No votes were taken Monday as state House members publicly voiced their frustrations over negotiations. Lawmakers opted to take Tuesday as a behind-the-scenes work day.
The special session must end by March 7. Any legislation that makes it through the House must be vetted by the Senate to pass.
It's unclear how much direct influence Scalise has been willing to wield in State Capitol politics, though he is close to those in powerful posts and shares their views on many issues.
Scalise has been spotted in the halls of the State Capitol multiple times in the two years since state House Republicans bucked tradition and ignored Edwards' recommendation for the chamber's top leadership post. Last month, Scalise attended a fundraiser for House Speaker Taylor Barras and House leadership in Washington during D.C. Mardi Gras festivities. House Appropriations Chair Cameron Henry, a Metarie Republican who has been a key foil to Edwards' efforts, is a former top aide to Scalise, and the two remain close.
"I don't tell them what to do because we have our own problems in Washington," Scalise said when asked about how much advice he gives, though he praised Henry's "strong direction of where he thinks things need to go."
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Scalise said he just wants to see Louisiana thrive.
"We should be as much of a growing state as every other southern state – because every other southern state is growing except us," he said. "We ought to look inside and see what our problems are so that we can change and we can compete again."
On Tuesday, U.S. News and World Report ranked Louisiana, for the second year in a row, as the worst state in the country in an analysis based on health care, education, infrastructure, crime and other quality-of-life measures.
Louisiana received low marks across individual rankings on crime and corrections (48), economy (44), education (49), fiscal stability (48), health care (47), infrastructure (44), opportunity (50) and quality of life (42).
"If our state's not competitive, they need to look internally and decide what changes need to be (made)," Scalise said in the Friday interview, before the ranking report came out. "There is no reason that Georgia, Texas or Florida or any other state should beat us out in competitions, but it's not my business to tell them how to fix it."
Edwards' administration has pushed back on the legitimacy of U.S. News' analysis.
"The metrics used to compile this report date as far back as seven years when it comes to education and do not take into account the significant improvements the state has made in many important areas," Edwards spokeswoman Shauna Sanford said. "Unfortunately, this is a recurring problem with this report, which has previously used data a decade old in ranking our state."
Addressing a packed house of business leaders just after the "Best States" ranking was released, Edwards said the state is making strides in improving its business climate and he wants to see it continue to build upon that.
"We're getting stronger every day and we do have a lot of momentum," he told attendees of the statewide economic development summit held in Baton Rouge.
Edwards recounted recent jobs announcements and the state's recent drop in unemployment to a standing-room-only crowd.
"The key to our continued economic development growth is workforce investment," Edwards said.
Edwards also touched on the issues that have bogged down the special session, calling for compromise.
"By definition, it is hard because you have to exchange some things you don't like to get something you do like," he said. "We have to summon the courage to do what is hard but what is necessary."