Republicans have no intention of dumping House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) from his powerful leadership position despite the congressman’s admission that he spoke to a gathering of white nationalists in 2002.
On Tuesday, the day after the issue erupted, Scalise said his decision was “a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.” Within an hour, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) blasted out statements supporting their recently-installed No. 3.
Scalise was elected to leadership in July for two key reasons. First, many Republicans wanted a southerner in the ranks — before him, every leader hailed from a state won twice by President Barack Obama. Second, after former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat in June, Republican leaders wanted an effective liaison to their restive right flank.
On both counts, the Scalise experiment has been a success, GOP sources said. Conservative members feel they have more input in the legislative process under Scalise, who often voted with the party’s right wing. Boehner has watched Scalise whip up the votes to pass two key pieces of legislation despite long odds: the August messaging bill to boost border security funding, and the December bill to fund most of the government through the end of the fiscal year. Vote counting was not a strong suit for the previous GOP leadership team. Other problems with the ultraconservative wing could return or get worse if they forced Scalise out.
“He’s a good, sharp team player,” a senior House Republican aide said. “Particularly after Mr. Cantor lost … there was a desire for somebody from a solid red state in the top ranks of leadership. You have somebody from Washington [Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers], somebody from California [McCarthy], somebody from Ohio [Boehner]. … So he’s able to talk to every member of our conference.”
House Republicans across the ideological spectrum are standing by Scalise, signaling a lack of an appetite to ditch him — at least, that is, unless new revelations make the situation even worse and force them to reconsider.
“Based on what we know so far, he should stay on,” Rep. Peter King (R-NY), a Boehner ally who is often at odds with the right flank, said Wednesday on MSNBC. “He has proven himself to be a hardworking member of Congress, reaches out, works with everyone. There’s always rumors about this person, that person in Congress. I’ve never heard anything bad about Steve Scalise until the story broke the other day and he’s giving us his explanation. I believe we owe him the benefit of the doubt on this unless more comes out.”
Above all, Boehner and his fellow Republicans want the story to blow over. It’s not the start they wanted to the 114th Congress, and they have nothing to gain by discussing it. Criticizing Scalise could offend the GOP base, and any praise has to be cautious given the nature of the controversy.
The problem is unlikely to hurt Scalise back at home. His southern Louisiana district is the most conservative district in the state, and the 10th most Republican district in the entire House of Representatives, leaning GOP by a whopping 26 points, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index.
“Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know Steve to be a man of high integrity and good character,” Boehner said, adding that Scalise made an error. “He has my full confidence as our Whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans.”
This article was updated at 4:21 p.m. ET to include new reporting.