Southern Republicans bemoan the demise of their power in the House


Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) speaks to fellow lawmakers and staff off the House floor Tuesday in his bid to become House majority whip before the upcoming House leadership vote. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

An aggrieved bloc of Southern House Republicans is flexing its political muscle, trying to stake a regional claim to increased congressional power after nearly four years of feeling neglected.

As the House GOP reshuffles its leadership, these Southern Republicans are demanding more of the spoils of a congressional majority that they feel responsible for creating in 2010, wanting at least one seat at the leadership table and more chairman’s gavels on some of the most important committees.

The current situation is in stark contrast to the clout wielded by that region after the original Republican revolution in 1994, when favored sons of the South held the top three leadership posts and wielded chairmanships on the Appropriations, Armed Services, and Ways and Means committees.

The new flash point comes with Thursday’s leadership ballots. The current House majority whip, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is almost certain to be elevated to succeed Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), turning the race to replace McCarthy into a regional, ideological battle for the third slot on the leadership team of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

One of the leading contenders, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), has made his Southern heritage a central feature of his campaign, right down to distributing T-shirts touting his Cajun roots: “Geaux Scalise.”

His main opponent is Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who has recognized the hurt feelings among Southerners and has promised to appoint a chief deputy from that region if selected.

Late Wednesday morning, Roskam arrived at a meeting of the Southern Republicans — convened as part of the group’s bid to ensure more power — to make a final pitch for his candidacy to the key voting group.

For a party whose passion, ideology and votes are increasingly based in the South, the loss of clout has been a surprising and somewhat complicating development.

Among the top six current Republican leaders, none hail from south of Richmond, instead representing such decidedly blue states as California, Washington and Oregon. Cantor is from the old Confederate capital, but many in the caucus regarded him, politically and culturally, as more of a Mid-Atlantic lawyer with Wall Street connections.

If Roskam wins, it would shut the South out of all key leadership posts.

Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) — whose state delegation in the 1990s included the House speaker, a campaign committee chairman and two future U.S. senators — said that Southern members of leadership will end up making more conservative decisions because of the voters they face when they are back home on weekends visiting the local Wal-Mart. “Their issues are a little bit different — I promise you — than in Chicago,” said Westmoreland, who is backing Scalise.

The South fares just as poorly on the legislative committees. Of the four most powerful chairmen, just one can be considered Southern — sort of. The Appropriations chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), comes more from Appalachia than from the Confederacy.

Even Roskam’s supporters realize the power of the Southern argument in their bid to overtake Scalise, arguing to the several dozen undecided Republicans that Roskam’s experience as McCarthy’s top whip will make him more effective.

“Having a Southerner is a priority, but it’s not as important as having someone who can pass conservative legislation,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a freshman who is whipping support for Roskam.

Demands for regional balance are nothing new to American politics, beginning with the selection of vice-presidential running mates and reaching into the halls of Congress.

House Democrats once mastered this process. From 1939 through 1989, their top leader was from either Texas or Massachusetts — with a brief six-year run of Speaker Carl Albert (Okla.) in the 1970s — and the No. 2 post was always given to someone from the other state.

The legendary Sam Rayburn of Texas spent almost 21 years as the top Democrat, with John McCormack of Massachusetts his top lieutenant the entire time.

However, when Republicans swept to power in the 1994 midterm elections, they did so on the backs of Southern leaders who also brought along with them a huge number of GOP freshmen.

Newt Gingrich (Ga.) became speaker, Richard K. Armey (Tex.) became majority leader and Tom DeLay (Tex.) edged out a pair of rivals from other regions to become whip. Gingrich plucked Bob Livingston (La.) from far down in the ranks to become Appropriations chairman, and senior Republicans Bill Archer (Tex.), Floyd Spence (S.C.) and Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (Va.) took over the three other most powerful committees.

The class of 1994 doesn’t recall things breaking so cleanly on regional lines.

Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), who that year became the first Republican to represent his House district since the 19th century, said DeLay won that race based on his skill.

“It wasn’t a regional thing,” he recalled, warning today’s House Republicans to pursue a national image. “Make sure that we are viable in every region.”

Southern House Republicans are aware of that, but they have taken notice of several instances in the past few years when their region came up short in its bid for clout.

After 2010, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) won the prized chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, topping several candidates, including a Texan. When Boehner had to choose the Intelligence Committee chairman, he picked a close friend, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), over Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.).

After the 2012 elections, Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy privately threw their support behind Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) for the No. 4 position, tipping the balance for a narrow victory over Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).

One Midwestern chairman, Rep. David Camp (R-Mich.), is retiring at the end of this year and is almost certain to be replaced atop the Ways and Means Committee by another Midwesterner, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), leap-frogging a more senior Texan on the panel.

Each decision has multiple layers to it — Ryan is simply the most popular member of the House GOP caucus — but each move has shifted power away from the South.

This prompted Southern Republicans to begin holding regular meetings in which they would plot to find their moment to pounce, using basic math as their main trump card.

The 11 states of the original Confederacy now have almost 100 Republicans in the House, not quite a majority of the 233-
member caucus but a massive voting bloc that can tip the balance.

They also feel these slots are owed to them politically. In 2010, Republicans knocked off 17 Democratic incumbents from those 11 states, claiming another five seats that longtime Democrats vacated. Those victories accounted for more than a third of the 63 seats gained nationwide that year.

“Look at what percentage we make up of the conference and look at what we have,” Westmoreland said of the few plum prizes for Southerners.

The whip race will be decided in a secret ballot, and with three contestants — Roskam, Scalise and Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.) — a second ballot could be required before someone gets the majority. Roskam knows that getting some margin among the Southern contingent is his only hope, given its raw size, and seven backers from the South issued a letter trying to reassure regional colleagues about his candidacy.

“We are confident that he will fight for that regional influence in our committees, at the leadership table and, most importantly, in helping deliver on our policy priorities,” they wrote.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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