As members flew back to town for the first time since the baseball practice shooting, the House’s No. 3 Republican remained absent indefinitely, and his leadership post was already being occupied temporarily.
The trauma to the Capitol from the grievous wounding of Steve Scalise, who’s set to remain hospitalized into the July Fourth recess and may not return to work before Labor Day, was not reaching in any visible way into the workings of his majority whip operation.
Precisely three years after getting tapped by the Louisiana congressman to be his chief deputy, Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina has already started filling in — without either fanfare or formal anointing — as commandant of the vote-counting and vote-corralling organization. He convened and ran Tuesday evening’s weekly meeting of the whip team.
The reality that Scalise and McHenry are genuinely close buddies with a deep professional rapport, and that the chief deputy’s job description includes filling in for the elected whip as needed, have essentially eliminated what could otherwise be developing into an especially awkward and politically tense time within the House GOP.
At least in the short term, lawmakers who envision themselves ascending to the top tier of the GOP command structure have no motivation to permit their egos to overwhelm the discretion and decorum required while one of their bosses is incapacitated. No member wants to be perceived by colleagues as putting personal ambition ahead of inside-the-House propriety at a time like this, and McHenry’s logical step into the breach will reduce that possibility.
The transition’s straightforward but only-until-further-notice nature is undeniably welcome in the ranks of the Republican conference. Even before the bones, organs and arteries of Scalise’s lower body were mangled by a would-be assassin’s bullet, the group already had more than enough anguish and apprehensiveness on its collective plate, given how the Trump administration’s travails have essentially brought meaningful conservative legislating to a halt.
In an important sense, GOP members are fervently hoping their stand-in whip is put to the test assembling hard-to-find majorities as soon as possible — because that would mean the House is getting to vote on the health care, appropriations, tax and other bills they were elected to advance.
Given how this week’s schedule for the House floor amounts to another period of legislative water treading, however, McHenry’s first task was to put his organization skills to work on another front: helping the congressional community channel sympathies for Scalise and the other shooting victims still hospitalized, his bodyguard Crystal Griner of the Capitol Police and lobbyist Matt Mika.
To that end, McHenry arranged for a blood drive in the ceremonial Rayburn Building foyer on Tuesday and another planned from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday.
Blood Drive After Shooting Draws Crowd
Earlier drives in honor of the 51-year-old Scalise — whose doctors described him as nearly bleeding to death before his arrival at MedStar Washington Hospital Center a week ago — were organized by a fraternity brother of the congressman from Louisiana State University and colleagues from his 12 years in the state Legislature in Baton Rouge.
MedStar’s director of trauma, Dr. Jack Sava, told reporters Friday that Scalise will likely remain hospitalized for another several weeks before beginning extensive outpatient rehabilitation. Nonetheless, he said, “We fully expect him to be able to walk” and “hopefully run.” When asked whether Scalise will ever be able to resume his congressional workload, the surgeon said, “I think so. I think that’s a good possibility.”
That optimistic long-range outlook for the congressman, whose condition was upgraded to “serious” from “critical” over the weekend, has helped spur the seemingly passive decision to have McHenry fill the leadership void in the weeks ahead.
Should Scalise’s prognosis get worse, and his eventual return to the Capitol become in doubt, serious and secretive talks would inevitably begin about the appropriate scheduling of an election for a new whip to serve at least through the midterm election and the end of the 115th Congress.
The job last came open in June 2014, because Kevin McCarthy of California moved up a notch in the hierarchy, to majority leader, when Eric Cantor resigned after being defeated for re-election in his Virginia primary. Scalise — then chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the second most conservative clique in the House GOP — counted on McHenry as one of his campaign managers and defeated Peter Roskam, who remains an Illinois congressman, and Marlin Stutzman, who left the House last year after losing a Senate bid in Indiana.
Cracking the whip
Operating with a staff of 20 from offices on the third floor of the Capitol, the overtly affable Scalise and the sometimes incendiary McHenry have honed a symbiotic professional partnership, their complementary soft-soap and hard-sell approaches aided by a throng of several dozen assistant whips — more than one-third of the House GOP ranks.
The whip team’s jobs include selling the leadership rationale for a “yes” or “no” vote, conveying anxieties up the chain of command, and keeping track of the votes in hand, the votes in play, the votes out of reach and — hopefully the smallest number — the votes that can’t be determined.
David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: What’s a Whip?
If the majority and minority leaders are like corporate CEOs, working to advance their parties strategic goals by setting and executing grand policymaking strategies, then the whips are akin to the plant managers — keeping the operation on the legislative factory floor running smoothly by keeping their eyes on the numbers every day.
If there’s an immediate challenge for McHenry now, it’s that only one of his three deputies, Dennis A. Ross of Florida, has his priorities firmly in the House these days. Ann Wagner of Missouri has been on a fundraising whirlwind in anticipation of a Senate run next year, while Kristi Noem of South Dakota is shifting her focus to her announced campaign for governor
At 41, McHenry will be the youngest person at the House GOP’s top table — an echo of his status as the youngest member of Congress when he arrived a dozen years ago to represent areas west of Charlotte.
But by that point, his extensive political resume stretched back more than a decade. He’d started the College Republicans chapter at Belmont Abbey College, won the chairmanship of the statewide federation of GOP students, lost a bid for the state House when he was a junior, done a stint at the conservative DCI Group public affairs firm, landed a political appointment as special assistant to Elaine L. Chao when she was Labor secretary, then triumphed in his second quest for a spot in the legislature — which he gave up as soon as his local congressional seat came open.
He won the 2004 primary, tantamount to election in the lopsidedly Republican district, by 85 votes.
Since joining the leadership in 2014, McHenry has toed the party line 98 percent of the time on floor votes pitting most Republicans against most Democrats — a higher party unity score than the 95 percent House GOP average.
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