House Whip Steve Scalise spent the past 18 months cajoling and pleading with the right flank of the GOP Conference for votes on must-pass legislation — often to no avail.
So when the Louisiana Republican called out fellow GOP lawmakers in a memo this week, essentially questioning their sincerity on some tough votes, it was an early sign of how the man with perhaps the toughest job in Republican leadership will operate differently under new Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“Too many in our conference are falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes because they know that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails,” Scalise wrote to House Republicans.
The missive was Scalise’s attempt to define his role — and that of the whip operation — in the brave new GOP world of Ryan. The speaker has promised to be more inclusive, more conciliatory and less retaliatory than his predecessor John Boehner. Ryan has vowed a freewheeling and open House, with votes on bills and amendments even if they’re unpopular and occasionally make lawmakers look bad.
All of that may make Scalise’s job — he has the unenviable task of managing the often-unmanageable GOP Conference — even more challenging at times. Yet Scalise, along with Ryan, must still pass legislation. And that means counting votes, and sometimes knocking heads.
“My point is simple: if there are 150 Republicans who hope the bill passes, then there should be 150 Republicans who vote yes on final passage,” Scalise wrote.
That Scalise felt secure enough to publicly issue such a memo is a testament to his survival skills. Only months ago, some GOP insiders privately called him a “dead man walking,” someone who could end up so politically toxic that he couldn’t serve in leadership.
It hasn’t played out that way.
Scalise started the year embroiled in a career-threatening scandal over his 2002 speech to a white supremacist group, six years before he was elected to Congress. With his political fate up in the air, the Louisiana Republican secured support from Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — and, more important, from Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is African-American — and managed to hang on.
Ten months later, Boehner’s surprise retirement created an expected opening for majority leader, and Scalise pounced. He was favored to win that contest against Georgia Rep. Tom Price, setting up Scalise to go from almost-done to No. 2 House Republican.
But it all collapsed when McCarthy suddenly withdrew his bid for speaker. Ryan was quickly anointed as Boehner’s replacement, leaving Scalise stuck in place.
In a recent interview, the 50-year-old Scalise, first elected to the House in a 2008 special election, insisted he’s perfectly content with being whip. He added that he has more extensive ties to Ryan than he did to Boehner before Scalise jumped into leadership in mid-2014.
“I actually have known and worked with Paul longer than I worked with John Boehner,” Scalise said, pointing to Ryan’s service as chairman of the Ways and Means and Budget committees, two posts that brought the Wisconsin Republican into frequent contact with the leadership.
Scalise also said he understands and supports the decision by the Republican Conference to elevate Ryan to the speaker’s chair, even though he was outside of leadership ranks for most of his career.
“There [were] people that wanted [the] symbolic change of having somebody new coming in,” Scalise said, and Paul “is even more well known than John Boehner.”
While Price was considered a strong contender for the majority leader post, Scalise and many other Republicans believe Scalise would have won the majority leader race despite the controversy over his appearance before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, an extremist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise apologized for the incident, saying he “regretted” that he made the speech.
“We put a very strong team together, even stronger than the team put together to be whip,” Scalise said, referring to his first-ballot victory over Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois in 2014. “Nice to know [we had] that kind of strong and very broad support to go for that spot. It ultimately didn’t come open.”
Scalise has had other tough moments this year, most notably the ugly Republican-on-Republican squabbling over immigration and Homeland Security funding that consumed the first several months of 2015. Republicans lost a key floor vote during that episode, leading to a lot of internal finger-pointing among GOP leaders, including the accuracy of the whip count.
But Scalise has also enjoyed some big wins, especially in the past few months. One was the strong GOP support for a fast-track trade package. And the October passage of the debt ceiling and budget deal, part of Boehner’s “cleaning the barn” effort for Ryan, demonstrated an efficient whip operation.
It’s also difficult to separate out how much of House Republicans’ internal problems were Scalise’s (or McCarthy’s) doing — as opposed to conservative hard-liners, especially in the House Freedom Caucus, simply being fed up with Boehner. Boehner’s departure has certainly changed the mood in the House, to the benefit of Scalise and the whip team.
Most conservatives give Scalise and the whip operation — including Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the chief deputy majority whip — good grades. They praise Scalise for working hard and sitting down with members, not just relying on deputy whips to get vote counts.
“Steve has taken a lot different tack, I think, from the past, really reaching out to members individually. I know it’s a big place, there are so many people it’s hard to reach out. My experience has been that he hasn’t waited for me to come to him,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the Freedom Caucus.
“I think everybody is trying to reboot their modus operandi,” Salmon added, saying that Scalise and McCarthy deserve credit for “showing they are very flexible with his leadership style.”
Ryan’s pledge to restore regular order — bills and resolutions move through committees first and then onto the floor, instead of being crafted by leadership and put up for votes — should take some pressure off Scalise, assuming it’s adhered to.
“From Paul’s perspective, he’s pushing committee chairmen to be in the driver’s seat,” McHenry said.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said that keeping Scalise and McCarthy in place following Ryan’s ascension helps bolster the Wisconsin Republican’s ability to operate as speaker.
“I think it strengthens our leadership team to have people in positions that they have experience with,” said Shimkus, who is close friends with Scalise. “With Kevin being leader and Steve being whip, you really don’t upset the apple cart too much.”
Shimkus also noted that the big GOP majority, the largest in 80 years, has proven to be a double-edged sword for party leaders, as Scalise noted in his memo. Members think they can vote however they want and must-pass bills will still get over the hump.
“You would think with our large numbers it would be easier; obviously, it’s been harder,” Shimkus noted of Scalise.
While Scalise said that Ryan has promised a “reset” in relations between leadership and rank-and-file Republicans, he is also aware that unrest inside the conference hasn’t gone away; it’s just dormant for the moment. Members are watching closely how their top leaders act over the next few months to see whether the new tone is permanent or just a passing phase.
Scalise is aware that he could face a potential challenge after the 2016 elections, and he said he is fine with that possibility.
“My focus has always been to do a really good job at the job you have and let the rest of it take care of itself,” Scalise said. “If somebody wants to run against me, that is what democracy is all about.”