Conservative doubts about Rep. Steve Scalise, the newly elected chairman of the Republican Study Committee, were punctuated by his initial reaction to a purge of four rebellious Republicans from their plum committee assignments.
The Louisiana Republican is now under fire on several fronts, including for a decision to fire a young policy staffer over a white paper on copyright infringement.
But while his initial defense of the purge has outraged conservative activists, the picture on Capitol Hill is more complex. None of the four lawmakers removed had much of a constituency in Congress, leaving them few defenders.
Scalise initially told The Hill newspaper that the decisions had “nothing to do with conservatism” and boasted of other right-wing members who were placed on coveted committees.
The backlash was swift, with Erick Erickson of RedState.com writing that Scalise had failed his “first test” as the incoming RSC chairman and saying conservatives felt a “deep-rooted disquiet” about his selection to lead the group.
“Given the exemplary service of Congressman Scalise’s predecessors at the RSC, we kind of expected he would come to the defense of the purged conservatives,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth.
Scalise’s membership on the Steering Committee that removed the lawmakers has also led some conservatives to be wary of whether he signed off on the reassignments.
At an event at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, where he shared the stage with outgoing RSC Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, Scalise took a different tack, saying it was “very unfortunate” that members were removed from their committees.
Scalise was confronted by an activist after the event who demanded to know whether The Hill report was accurate.
“I think the initial comment looked as if I just [was] discarding it, which clearly I wasn’t. ... I did want to point out that there were, this was something I fought for, there were some good conservatives that did get on some of those committees,” Scalise told her. “We’re gonna be taking on some very difficult tasks where we are going to be in disagreement with our leadership on some of those things, maybe as soon as with this fiscal cliff negotiation.”
Jordan lit into GOP leaders for their decision to remove the members, saying it “makes no sense to me” and defending Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, in particular, for his expertise in agriculture policy despite being removed from the Agriculture Committee.
On many other questions, the two lawmakers preached the same conservative gospel. For instance, both vowed to oppose any fiscal cliff deal that raised taxes. But a question about Derek Khanna, an RSC staffer who wrote a white paper on copyright policy and was subsequently fired, highlighted the microscope Scalise is under.
Khanna’s paper, which criticized current law on copyright holders and drew criticism from content providers such as the movie and music industries, was pulled almost as quickly as it was released. Some RSC members criticized the paper, and Scalise subsequently fired Khanna.
When Scalise was asked about his handling of the affair, his answer suggested that he wanted to ensure the RSC doesn’t get out too far ahead of its large and diverse membership.
“In general, if you look at where the RSC is going to go, if we’re going to be effective, it’s going to be the members of RSC that have to unite and fight for those principles that we believe in — and do it in a unified way,” Scalise said. “Because the next two years are going to be a challenge. We’re going to be swimming upstream on a number of different fronts.”
In his campaign to become RSC chairman, Scalise vowed to engage in a more cooperative style in his interactions with leadership, implicit criticism of Jordan’s tenure. The promises may have paid off in the form of last-minute calls on his behalf from Barry Jackson, a top aide to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, two sources said. Scalise said he knew nothing about the calls and didn’t speak to Jackson in the course of the campaign. Boehner’s office declined to comment.
In his personal interactions with members and aides, Scalise is warm and respectful, earning him plaudits. And many Republicans, even within the RSC, shed no tears over the punishment of the four lawmakers one GOP aide called “difficult to work with.”
But it’s fair to say Scalise’s action will be closely watched by the right. “I’ve talked to Steve and have encouraged him, as I think he will, and that is to stick to the principles — the conservative principles. If he does that, RSC will be fine,” Rep. Tom Price, a former RSC chairman, said recently.