House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has gone from an outside voice to an inside player in less than two months. This week, he faces a critical test as the House prepares to approve a short-term spending measure that also will authorize President Obama's new military strategy for Iraq and Syria.
As we write today, Scalise's climb into leadership "reflects the challenge facing GOP leaders seeking to bring unity to a traditionally rancorous caucus, just weeks before the midterm elections."
Scalise spoke Tuesday with The Washington Post's Robert Costa and Ed O'Keefe in his third-floor office at the U.S. Capitol. A transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity, appears below:
O'Keefe: So you have no reservations about passing the short-term spending bill with language authorizing President Obama's new strategy in Iraq and Syria?
Scalise: "I have reservations that the president hasn’t laid out a broader strategy and I think constituents I’ve talked to would like to see him more aggressive and focused on how to eradicate ISIL. Not to nuance what their name is or limit the scope of what you would do to eliminate them. I think a lot of us would like to see a bolder, broad strategy and then go and sell the American people on how to get that done. What he’s asked us for is very narrow, to train and arm Syrian rebels that would have to be vetted first."
"But if you want to see him go further, at least if he’s taking a first step that might start to build a coalition to fight ISIL where they are, then we ought to give him that authority with transparency and accountability that goes along with it."
Costa: So is it fair to say that when the initial plan was floated to include the authorization language in the spending bill that you were a voice in leadership saying, hey, let’s at least have it as a vote on separate amendment?
Scalise: "Well I feel like we ought to have a separate standalone debate and vote on the question of whether we should authorize the training and equipping of rebels who are vetted. And that’s going to happen, with six hours of debate."
O’Keefe: Have you pledged to members that there definitely will be a broader debate after the election?
Scalise: "I don’t make that direct call, but I think our leadership, all of us are hearing that that is a wise way to go."
Costa: Everyone knows you’re close to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, but there’s a generational divide with Speaker John Boehner. What’s that relationship like? How does he help you? How does he guide you in your new role? What is that specific dynamic like?
Scalise: "We didn’t have the same relationship. Kevin and I both knew each other before we came to Congress and I’m still getting to know the speaker on a closer level. But even when I was [Republican Study Committee] chairman I would go to him when I felt that there were things that we as conservatives wanted to see done on the floor. Sometimes we were able to get that agreed upon, sometimes it wasn’t, but at the same time we started a dialogue where I would push certain policies that conservatives wanted to see addressed."
O’Keefe: How are you working to get to know him better? Are you breaking bread or something else?
Scalise: "We spend more time together. We’ve been through some very consequential bills.
"On my very first legislative day, I was asked to help pass an immigration bill. Frankly, I think we were able to do a really good job of pulling our members in from every spectrum of our conference and pass a good border security bill, which Congress hadn’t done in nine years because it’s hard to do. But we did it, and we did it in a way that unified our conference. I think I was able to prove to the speaker there that you can bring in some members that maybe weren’t part of that legislative process as much in the past and still produce something very good that unified our conference."
Costa: A few of the older members tell me that they still see you looking nervously at the board as votes happen. Do you still have nerves during that process?
Scalise: "Look, when you talk to a quarterback who’s been playing for years, they still probably get the butterflies when they walk out on the field. I still have the same feelings walking into the Capitol that I did the first week I was here."
"When we bring policies to the floor that we feel are the right approach for our country, we want to get that passed. We’re not always able to get the things moved through the entire process that we’d like to see. Part of that hopefully we address in November with getting control of the Senate, where we can actually move bills to the president’s desk. But for now we control the House and our challenge is to get the most conservative policy through the floor that solves problems that are before us."
O’Keefe: Give us a distinction of how the whip operation will be different under you as compared to before.
Scalise: "I don’t look at how am I going to be different. I have an approach, I have passions about conservative policy. I’d like to see us addressing problems head-on from the most conservative way that we can get them passed to the floor.
"You understand the political realities of what you’re working with, but I start with a strong conservative policy and an understanding of how to bring people together to accomplish those goals. It’s not easy, but that’s one of the things that’s great about this job. Everyday you have a challenge and you get to work with some of the smartest people around to get that done."
Read our full profile of Scalise here.