When Majority Whip Steve Scalise walked to the floor on Feb. 27 for the vote on a three-week continuing resolution for the Department of Homeland Security, he knew it was going to fail.
“When we put the bill out there,” Scalise recounted in a sit-down with CQ Roll Call, “there were a lot of members who felt that was the right way to go — over 80 percent of our conference voted for it — but we still didn’t have enough to get there, and you couldn’t expect any Democrats.”
Welcome to the role of the modern majority whip.
It’s an increasingly difficult position. There are no earmarks to dangle in front of members. Plenty of Republicans, having discovered pathways to re-election by being party antagonists, have little reason to fear leadership. And plenty of other Republicans, tired of the conference catering to its most conservative members, are ready for a revolt of their own.
Scalise entered leadership last June after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary, creating an open spot in the GOP’s top ranks.
In a hotly contested three-way race, Scalise took the whip position on the first ballot . It was an impressive win by the then-Republican Study Committee chairman, who sold himself as a conservative voice in leadership.
But there was little time for celebration. Scalise hadn’t even moved into Cantor’s old office — Kevin McCarthy stayed in his whip office and just changed the sign — when he faced his first real test : pushing through a controversial border supplemental package.
Weeks later, in September, Scalise helped sell conservatives on a short-term CR , even as many insisted a CR extending into the new Congress would be a stronger tactic for dealing with President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.
Scalise did it again in December with the so-called cromnibus .
Then, an ugly blast from his Louisiana past nearly derailed the new majority whip.
A reporter revealed Scalise had, in 2002, delivered a speech to a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, followed quickly by a report on a 1999 Roll Call article in which then-potential congressional candidate Scalise said he embraced many of the same conservative views as Duke — Scalise said he was just a more viable candidate.
The controversy complicated Scalise’s leadership position. There were a couple of weeks in early January when it was clear either the story or Scalise would have to go . Ultimately, in a testament to his resilience, it was Scalise who persevered.
Scalise knows that, for the casual observer of American politics, his name now has a comma attached to it — with a dependent clause affixed on the other end noting the 2002 speech. He knows he has some work to do to be more than the-Republican-who-spoke-to-a-white-power-group.
When CQ Roll Call asked for a brief, non-Wikipedia version of his biography, Scalise was more than happy to oblige. “Especially now,” he said, seeming to reference the speech controversy, which litters his online biography.
As for the accusations he’s racist — or has benefited from convincing bigoted voters he somehow shares their beliefs — Scalise seems to have moved on from apologizing and instead is hitting back.
“You’ve seen people come out who know me and say, 'That’s not who he is,'” Scalise said. “The media tried to come out and create some false narrative, and it didn’t take hold because it wasn’t true.”
The truth, Scalise has always insisted, is that in 2002, he was talking to anyone who would listen — and that he had no staff to vet speaking requests. “If I was open, I’d just go and speak.”
Now Scalise faces the task of restoring the luster to his brand. It’s been noted in numerous publications — including this one — that Scalise shares a close friendship with black Democrat and fellow Louisiana Rep. Cedric L. Richmond.
And beyond a small public relations campaign, Scalise is signaling to his congressional colleagues that he’s not going anywhere. The first step in that process, it seems, is to raise money. Lots of it .
In the first quarter of this Congress, a quarter not typically known for big fundraising hauls, Scalise brought in more than $1.5 million. That’s unprecedented for a whip at this point and a testament to Scalise’s determination to get back on track. (He went ahead and doled out roughly $250,000 directly to members and another $350,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.)
In Washington, fundraising is an easy way to measure power. And historic fundraising totals are a good way to show allies and opponents your career is far from over.
Nor did it hurt that Republicans ended their first 100 days in office by adopting a budget — a tougher task than it probably should be for the party — and by overwhelmingly passing a bipartisan deal ditching the Medicare "doc fix" for long-term changes.
That may be why, despite the setbacks, Scalise isn’t ruling out eventually moving up the leadership ladder.
He demurs when asked if he’s interested in, perhaps, becoming majority leader should Boehner retire and McCarthy become speaker. “I was not even thinking I’d be whip today a year ago,” Scalise said.
But he notes that when he entered the Louisiana statehouse in 1996, he heard some colleagues predict, on their first day in office, they would one day be governor. “And none of them [did] because a lot of them didn’t focus on the job they had,” Scalise said. “And I’ve always believed if you work hard at the job you have, whatever opportunities come later, will be there because of what you do.”
A true politician's answer.
Scalise notes he hasn’t asked Boehner if he’s leaving at the end of this Congress — and Boehner hasn’t told him. But Scalise said Republicans have plenty to focus on before they get involved in those discussions.
For one, Scalise said, they’ll get a reconciliation bill on the president’s desk that fundamentally dismantles Obamacare.
For another, Scalise continued, they’ll pass that long-promised-but-yet-to-materialize Republican replacement for Obamacare. (He believes the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Republicans on King v. Burwell — far from a given — and said the case going their way would cause “a real earthquake within the law.”)
And, Scalise said, he believes the Export-Import Bank, at least in its current form, won’t be reauthorized . “At this point, [Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas] has said he wants it to expire, and I think it’s on track to go that way.”
Overall, Scalise presents himself as a distinctly social animal, someone who genuinely enjoys the company of others. He notes he shares a flop house with GOP Reps. John Shimkus of Illinois, Kevin Brady of Texas and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota. (“We always get on Shimkus, you know, for not keeping the place clean enough, you know, and he blames us for throwing stuff on the ground and the dirty dishes, but it’s a fun mix.”)
Yes, Scalise has a serious job. But it's important to him that people know he knows how to have fun.
And that’s exactly the answer you get when — channeling your inner James Lipton — you ask him: "Who is Steve Scalise?"
“Steve Scalise,” he said, almost too comfortable talking about himself in the third person, “is a happy warrior who believes in working hard and having fun along the way.”
Presented with the fact that “happy warrior” is just a Washington cliché, Scalise said he has "battle scars" from some big fights. “I’ve learned persistence, with some of the things I’ve passed along the way, is the only way to get things done.”
“I think the best attribute you can have is persistence,” he said.
Related: In Richmond’s Defense of Scalise, a History of Camaraderie Congressional Black Caucus Sees Leverage in Steve Scalise Protests What Scalise and Vitter Told Roll Call About David Duke in 1999 The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.