In his Rayburn office on Capitol Hill, Rep. Steve Scalise has a case of triumphs.
The Louisiana Republican exhibits an impressive array of corks under glass in a custom-made display-box coffee table. Each was popped from a Champagne bottle to mark a momentous occasion: averting the New Year's 2013 fiscal cliff, personal achievements such as becoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee and local legislative milestones such as funding for the Gulf Coast recovery.
A Sharpie pen marks the date of consumption, and the corks rest near small gold plates inscribed with the events that called for the bubbly.
With more than a dozen in all, Scalise hopes he’ll add to the collection in the months he has left before the end of his term leading the influential RSC.
Scalise’s broad mission, he told CQ Roll Call, is “to help move leadership to a more conservative place.”
And while that could easily be the stated goal of every RSC chairman, Scalise now has an even bigger task before him: offering the American voting public a glimpse of what kind of policy Congress could send to the president’s desk if only there were a Republican Senate to help.
“It’s important what we do the rest of the year,” Scalise said in the course of two more-than-20-minute sit-down interviews. “I want us to be bold."
“We ought to use our opportunity to put forward bills to show what we’re for and show how things would be different not only if we kept the House but had the Senate, what we would be able to do if [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid didn’t deep-six all these bills.”
Scalise wants to vote on a “jobs bill” and said the RSC is currently working on its own plan. He also wants to “address radical regulations” and push for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
His greatest ambition is for the House to vote on legislation to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. The RSC has such a bill with more than 120 co-sponsors. GOP leaders are being coy about whether they will support that specific legislative proposal, but they have gone from dismissing the effort to saying they are likely to consider some alternative Obamacare bill by the year’s end.
Scalise takes credit for that change of heart and also for the RSC’s influence over leadership’s political evolution generally since he took the reins of the organization at the start of the 113th Congress.
“I’ve brought them a lot of ideas and they’ve taken a number of them,” Scalise said. “It shows that they recognize that the RSC has a critical mass of members that ought to be adhered to when we come up with an idea that we can all rally around, that it would actually be good for leadership to go in the direction that we’re headed.”
But Scalise has had to prove that qualifier again and again since he was selected to stand at the helm of the storied group a little more than one year ago.
His tenure got off to a rough start. First, he upset the race for the chairmanship by forcing a vote among his colleagues , as opposed to letting Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., quietly ascend the ranks with the blessings of former chairmen and RSC founders.
Then, Scalise enraged the base by promising to engage members of leadership rather than antagonize them, which put his political and ideological autonomy into question.
Once he secured the one-term, two-year gig, Scalise had to show that working well with others and holding strong to conservative principles were not mutually exclusive and, in fact, could help the organization function better than it had before.
“When I came in, I focused very hard on making sure this would be a member-driven organization, that our members would drive the agenda and that we would push a conservative agenda on the House floor,” Scalise said.
The RSC, he continued, needed to be “not just a think tank, but a group of people who are elected to represent a conservative viewpoint and see it signed into law. We don’t want to just talk about what conservatism is, we want to actually implement these principles.”
Some senior House GOP aides suggested that Scalise’s boldest display of affection for his colleagues came toward the end of his first year on the job: In December, he was compelled to fire much-loved and long-serving RSC Executive Director Paul Teller , who had ultimately betrayed members by leaking their strategy sessions to outside groups.
“The staff used to be so much more powerful than the members for so long,” one aide told CQ Roll Call. “Scalise recognized that couldn’t be the case anymore.”
Scalise, a policy wonk rather than a flamethrower, hasn’t been able to satisfy everyone, of course: Some affiliates have gone off to form their own, by-invitation-only Liberty Caucus to supplement their work in the RSC. Those members feel the RSC is not aggressive enough and that, at roughly 176 members strong, the group’s ideological purity has been diluted.
But the three-term congressman, ever unflappable, didn’t appear offended or disturbed by the trend: “The RSC is the first group I joined here and I still think it’s the most relevant organization in Congress in terms of shaping policy.”
Scalise can point to some tangible examples of how fostering a positive working relationship with “establishment” Republicans doesn’t have to come at the expense of sacrificing core conservative values.
Take the farm bill, which suffered a surprise defeat on the House floor last summer. As GOP leadership regrouped, the RSC pushed to separate the legislation into farm and nutrition titles. Leaders were hesitant to go that route at first, but Scalise said he offered to help get "a commitment" from RSC members to vote for the bifurcated bill should it be brought to the floor. Scalise said he helped secure those crucial votes when leadership moved forward with the strategy.
Then there was the Full Faith and Credit Act, an RSC-sponsored bill passed by the House in the fall. It went on to die in the Democratic Senate, of course, but Scalise still gushes about the legislation, which would have taken the threat of default out of the equation by requiring the Treasury secretary to prioritize interest payments.
Scalise has also shown he’s prepared to use strong words against leadership.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, recently told Jay Leno that the government shutdown was “a predictable disaster” and that the blame lay squarely in the hands of the House GOP. Scalise adamantly rejected the characterization.
“I disagree with the speaker,” he said. “There were a lot of Democrats who wanted the shutdown … and in fact fought harder to keep the government shut down more than anybody else. There’s a lot of well-documented proof behind that. ... You can’t rewrite history.”
When Scalise’s term wraps up in December, he’ll have to think about what to do next. After a taste of influence and power, will he be content to go back into the crowd to be led, or will he feel the urge to keep leading, with a title of Speaker Scalise, perhaps?
“I don’t rule anything out,” he said. “I just want to advance conservative policy. Wherever I can help do that is where I want to be.”