At the center of the House vote Wednesday to fund the government and arm Syrian rebels stood the new House majority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, whose rise to power reflects the challenge for GOP leaders in bringing unity to a traditionally rancorous caucus.
Officially on the job for less than two months, the 48-year-old Scalise (R-La.) learned on the fly as he ushered through a short-term spending bill that included authorization of President Obama’s plan to train moderate Syrian forces to combat the Islamic State terrorist group.
Scalise’s sudden turn from outside voice to inside player was a source of unease for the past week as House leaders sought a bipartisan coalition.
As a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee — the caucus of the most conservative GOP members — Scalise was being counted on by Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to preserve the fragile consensus that exists within the House GOP.
Some of the uncertainty was attributable to the two men just getting acquainted.
“I’m still getting to know the speaker on a closer level,” Scalise said in an interview Tuesday at the Capitol.
One of Scalise’s assets is that he is seen as being able to sway some of the rabble-rousing skeptics who have long caused Boehner headaches by disrupting coalitions at the eleventh hour. Not so long ago, he was one of them.
“He’s a fighter and a Southerner,” said former Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston (R), who once held Scalise’s House seat. “He represents the biggest constituency in the caucus.”
Scalise joined Boehner’s leadership team this summer after the stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor, who was House majority leader at the time. Scalise and Boehner faced an immediate test just before the August recess on a border security bill, which they initially refused to bring to the floor, citing a lack of support.
Those who had intended to vote against the bill were furious at the original contours of the legislation, forcing Boehner to delay the start of recess and rewrite the legislation. Within two days, meetings with several GOP firebrands yielded two new bills that addressed conservatives’ concerns. Both bills passed.
Scalise counts that moment as a victory and one that signals how he will fill his new role in the House.
“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,” Scalise said.
His colleagues have taken notice, and some comfort, in his new position.
“In the few pieces of legislation we’ve whipped, I think the reason we’ve been able to get to a majority of our majority much quicker is because that listening has been done in advance,” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), one of Scalise’s deputy vote-counters.
Before Scalise was in leadership, “it seemed that we were told, ‘Here’s what we’re voting on, hold your nose and support us,’ ” said Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.).
Former whip and new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has known Scalise for years, has been a mentor. Soon after Scalise was elected to the whip post, McCarthy instructed his staff to work closely with Scalise’s team to keep tabs on the conference’s political pulse.
“Our offices need to be interlinked,” McCarthy said in an interview Monday. “That is absolutely necessary.”
On the floor Wednesday, Scalise did face resistance from some Republicans on authorizing new military action, with others opposing other parts of the spending bill.
Scalise is sensitive to their concerns, noting that many Republican members were not around in 2002, the last time Congress debated going to war.
“For many, this is the first real opportunity to give their feelings on how military force should be used,” he said in the interview. Conversations with colleagues reflect a growing desire “to revisit the broader question” of military action in the Middle East, he said.
Scalise also benefited from a significant number of House Democrats’ bolstering the Republican vote count, giving him more room to lose conservative votes.
“With the Democrats supportive, his job was easier,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.). “He is getting to where he needs to be, but I’m not sure we really and truly know yet about him as whip.”
Personal relationships mean everything to Scalise, and they once helped him win the chairmanship of the RSC. Scalise is ideological, but he is not mounting an ideological campaign to transform the party’s policy agenda. He sees himself as a conservative well-versed in conservative policy and politics. He is positioning himself as a leader who understands how a new generation of Republicans thinks.
Months ago, Scalise would happily linger after GOP meetings and casually dish with reporters before walking back to his cramped office in the Rayburn Building, alone. These days, he rushes through the Capitol at the head of a sprawling entourage, followed by advisers and a phalanx of security personnel.
He has already redesigned parts of his suite in the U.S. Capitol, outfitting a first-floor meeting area into a private lounge for members, stocked with cans of soda and bags of snacks. On Monday night there, he served Italian food from Carmine’s restaurant as colleagues milled about, talking about Syria and ladling tomato sauce — Scalise calls it “gravy” — onto piles of pasta. Several members noted that he frequently serves Cajun meals and enjoys cooking for colleagues as well.
Scalise’s personal office on the third floor of the Capitol is more of a work in progress. Gone is the glass bowl of M&Ms that Cantor used to put on the center table. Most of Cantor’s furniture remains, and Scalise has yet to do much decorating beyond a “Fox News Sunday” coffee mug and several photos of his wife and young children.
On the House floor, Scalise’s methods contrast with Boehner’s and McCarthy’s. He is a sitter and an arm-around-the-shoulder operator. When he spots someone he wants to whip, he will sit down, one on one, and lean in close to talk.
“All Louisiana,” is how one House Republican describes the encounters. “It’s a soft touch with this refrain of, ‘I’m like you, I’m conservative and wish this could be better.’ He understands that a lot of us do not want to have to smile while swallowing whatever Boehner is putting in our spoon.”