From antagonist to enforcer

Greg Nash

If Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) wins the race to become the House majority whip, he might have to morph from chief antagonist to chief enforcer. 

Since 2013, Scalise has been chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), which is frequently a thorn in leadership’s side, as it pushes for far-right policies. 

ADVERTISEMENT
His new role might not just be at odds with becoming the party’s top vote-counter, but could also raise lingering questions over whether Scalise was the leadership’s preference to chair the oft-unruly RSC all along. 

As the largest nonparty bloc in Congress, the 173-member committee represents the most conservative wing of the House GOP. But Scalise’s camp dismissed suggestions that he would face tension between the two roles.

“As chairman of the RSC, he’s been able to work with leadership,” a source close to Scalise said. “He’s proven that fostering working relationships with leadership doesn’t mean checking conservative values at the door.”

Scalise’s camp pointed to his work on the farm bill last year, when he helped House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) find votes for legislation that separated funding for agriculture programs and food stamps. 

That maneuver caused a shift within the RSC though, when Scalise reportedly moved to block employees from the influential Heritage Foundation, whose political arm opposed the bill and was scoring against it, from attending the committee’s weekly meetings. 

The Louisiana Republican was also a vocal supporter of the flood insurance reform bill, which prevented hikes in flood insurance premiums, in March. Scalise’s backing of the flood insurance measure stood in contrast to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a former RSC chairman, who was pushed out of negotiations and voted against it.

Scalise’s rise to the top of the RSC wasn’t a coronation. He was viewed as the GOP leadership’s initial choice to chair the group, when he narrowly beat Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) for the post in late 2012. The group’s founding members had endorsed Graves, who many believed would be more confrontational with the leadership. 

But Scalise pledged after he won the chairmanship that he would “pull our leadership to the right.”

“It’s our job to be the conservative rudder of the conference,” Scalise said at the time. “There are going to be times when we disagree with our leadership, but ultimately, we’ve got to work hard to pull our leadership to the right.” 

Scalise is nonetheless upfront about his ability to work with, rather than against, the leadership.

“His philosophy has always been that engaging members of leadership is more effective than antagonizing them,” the Scalise source said.

Scalise’s competitors for majority whip, Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), would not encounter a similar shift. Roskam is already a member of leadership and viewed as relatively centrist.

Meanwhile, the two-term Stutzman is viewed as considerably more conservative than Scalise. The Indiana Republican holds an 84 percent score this Congress from Heritage Action, a slightly higher score than Scalise’s 81 percent.

Roskam, meanwhile, received 52 percent on Heritage Action’s 2013 scorecard.

Members would only vote on a new No. 3 Republican if current House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wins the majority leader election on Thursday against Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). Scalise would relinquish the RSC chairmanship if he becomes the new whip. 

Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) have already begun campaigns to replace Scalise as Republican Study Committee chairman. Both would likely continue to antagonize leadership in the new role though, even if their former chairman is now among those ranks.