BALTIMORE — Rep. Steve Scalise took the helm of the Republican Study Committee as a tainted man in the eyes of some of his colleagues, amid suspicion that he had solicited leadership help in winning the chairmanship.
Members were upset that Speaker John A. Boehner’s former chief of staff, Barry Jackson, made calls on behalf of the Louisiana Republican that contributed to his upset of Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who had the endorsement of the RSC founders.
Over the past month and a half, Scalise has worked to rebuild his credibility, and at the Heritage Foundation-sponsored RSC retreat held here last week, his colleagues said any lingering suspicions have been washed away.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina was a whip for Graves, but he said that any concerns he had about Scalise have been appeased.
“I do resent the fact that folks who are not traditionally members of the RSC, not participants in the RSC, would see fit to insert themselves in an RSC election,” Mulvaney said. “To me that violates a certain sense of fair play. That being said, I don’t think Scalise sought it out, and I don’t think Scalise is compromised in any way by that. Steve has so far been a really good chairman of the RSC.”
Scalise denied any knowledge of Jackson’s support.
“I don’t know what he was doing. I never talked to Barry about it,” he said. “I called every single member of the RSC personally, and some of them multiple times.”
He said he was able to pull through the contested race by reaching out to his colleagues, especially those who did not support him. He described his discussion with Mulvaney as an example.
“I said, ‘You and I are friends, and I know you and Tom are closer friends, but once this is over, if I’m fortunate enough to win, I want your help because we’re going to have to work together,’” Scalise said. “In the end, I think that made it a real easy transition because, again, it never got personal, but I also think people knew that there was a mutual respect. There’s not going to be any kind of vendettas.”
Indeed, Scalise gave the same treatment to Rep. Steve Southerland II of Florida, who delivered the nominating speech for Graves. Southerland headed the RSC antipoverty task force in the past Congress and Scalise asked him to return, despite Southerland’s work on behalf of his opponent.
“The tension through the election between Tom and Steve, I think, has been dissipated,” Southerland said.
Scalise has also been careful not to make waves within the organization. Although some members thought it was time to let go of longtime Executive Director Paul Teller, Scalise did not, a move conservatives took as a nod to them.
“I don’t think anybody could have fired Paul Teller,” one conservative advocate said. “That would have led them to every preconceived notion that they had about Scalise.”
Scalise has also been involved in representing conservatives on the policy side. He paired with Mulvaney in offering several amendments to the fiscal cliff deal, and he was one of several conservative lawmakers who concocted the “no budget, no pay” plan at the Republican Conference retreat in Williamsburg, Va., last month.
That effort included Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and three former RSC chairmen, Reps. Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jeb Hensarling of Texas.
Graves, who is weighing whether to run for Senate in Georgia, skipped the RSC retreat, and it’s unclear how involved he plans to be in the organization that spurned him.
And Scalise has yet to earn everybody’s trust and endorsement. As the House GOP presents a unified front so far in the 113th Congress, it is evident that the Louisiana Republican’s test will come when and if the party fractures, as it so often did in the 112th Congress. The tack he will take when leadership is not in line with conservatives will prove his bona fides to many in the group.
When asked what he thinks of the chairman’s first 45 or so days, Rep. Steve King of Iowa said it is too early to draw conclusions.
“So far, it looks good,” he said. “I don’t want to indict him. I’ll just say that the Republican Study Committee’s job is to be the conservative core and center. And if that is leadership, it’s great to be close to them. If not, the RSC needs to pull us to the right.”
Michael Needham of Heritage Action for America said Scalise’s test will come as Boehner decides to hold firm on his commitment to allow the sequester level of spending cuts to take effect.
“The test of Boehner will be whether or not he allows Congress to have that debate. The test of Steve is whether he holds Boehner’s feet to the fire,” he said.