House Republican leaders are hopeful there will be enough distractions at the start of the 114th Congress to deflect attention from Majority Whip Steve Scalise and his 2002 meeting with a white supremacist group.
But just how quickly the embarrassment goes away depends on how much members in both parties insist on talking about it — and whether there are any details of the incident that have yet to be uncovered. Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made it clear early on how they expected members of their conference to respond: Not at all, or, if they must, with statements of support. The two most senior House GOP lawmakers affirmed their allegiances with Scalise, R-La., within 24 hours of news breaking, and other rank-and-file members have only commented when explicitly asked.
The chamber's only Jewish Republican, incoming Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York, wouldn't take the bait on the most recent edition of "Fox News Sunday;" in an interview with "This Week" on ABC, neither would Rep.-elect Mia Love, R-Utah, another freshmen and the first African-American Republican woman to be elected to the House (she's also expected to be the only GOP member of the Congressional Black Caucus).
Republicans' other strategy is to point to Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the Louisiana congressional delegation's only Democrat who is black and who has vouched for Scalise.
"Look, when you've got Democrats rising to your defense, like Cedric Richmond did, that's pretty impressive," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., on MSNBC on Monday morning.
Congressional aides and political observers predict that there could really only be one scenario in which Scalise does not survive, politically, the fallout of a meeting he took prior to his career in the House: More hard evidence surfaces that links him to other similar events, or presents more damning details of that single event.
Right now, Scalise insists he visited with the organization out of an eagerness to share his fiscal policies with constituents, and he has conceded he exercised poor judgment in doing so. The event also occurred years before he was elected to Congress.
Otherwise, the extent to which the issue stays alive on Capitol Hill could depend on how forcefully House Democrats want to push. So far, the main fundraising and campaign operations have done the bulk of messaging around it.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Monday sent a press release to more than 30 vulnerable Republican-held districts that included the following statement: “The man that [the lawmaker] put in charge of telling Republicans in Congress how to vote — Whip Steve Scalise — turns out to troll for votes at white supremacist rallies. Scalise chose to cheerlead for an anti-Semitic, racist hate group and now it’s past time for [the member] to tell his [or her] constituents if he [or she] regrets putting Scalise in charge of how he [or she] would vote.”
The Democratic National Committee has blasted out copies of editorials from the Boston Herald and Chicago Tribune calling for Scalise to resign the leadership post he won in June.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., in her official capacity as DNC chairwoman, said Monday that “nothing discredits Republican claims of ‘outreach’ and bringing people together more than their decision to keep Steve Scalise at the top tier of the elected leadership of their caucus. The continued defense of Scalise by Speaker Boehner and other members of the House GOP shows they are as divisive as ever."
She stopped short, however, of explicitly calling for his resignation, restraint not shown by sophomore Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., an openly gay lawmaker who was the first — and so far the only — House Democrat to demand in no uncertain terms that Scalise vacate his post.
"This is personal for me," Maloney told CQ Roll Call on Monday. "I have three interracial children and I’m not going to look them in the eye and tell them it’s okay for a leader in the House of Representatives to attend Neo-Nazi and KKK rallies.
"My oldest daughter turns 14 today," he continued. "I think she deserves to grow up in a country where people in leadership don’t make excuses for going to rallies like this. That doesn’t seem, to me, to be too much to ask."
Meanwhile, the most senior leadership of the CBC has stayed silent on the matter, with outgoing Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, and incoming Chairman G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., declining to comment. Last week, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., the second vice chairwoman of the CBC, said that Boehner should call for an investigation into the incident.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus leadership has largely stayed mum, with Chairwoman-Elect Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif., offering a careful but pointed statement to CQ Roll Call: “Whip Scalise’s participation at a forum sponsored by an organization considered to be a hate group by many civil rights organizations is deeply concerning. His involvement reflects some of the problems the Republican Party has with minority groups. From immigration reform to the Voting Rights Act, Republicans stand for policies that are extreme and harmful to Latinos and minorities across the country.”
At his daily press briefing, White House press secretary Josh Earnest also took a swipe without arguing for Scalise's dismissal. He said Republicans would have to decide whether they wanted their No. 3 lawmaker to be someone who allegedly described himself as "David Duke without the baggage," a reference to the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and one-time Louisiana state politician and aspiring congressional lawmaker.
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