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GOP closes ranks around Scalise

GOP closes ranks around Scalise
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House GOP leaders are closing ranks around Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), defending him from calls for his resignation after he admitted speaking to a white supremacist group in 2002. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World MORE (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) both released near simultaneous statements on Tuesday, supporting Scalise and praising his character. Boehner even went on to say that he has “my full confidence as our Whip.”

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Scalise, the No. 3 GOP leader, on Tuesday released a new statement acknowledging a speech he gave to a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

He called the speech a “mistake I regret” and strongly condemned the group’s message.

Even though they’re coalescing around Scalise, the story is still an unwelcome headache for Republican leaders. Ahead of the 114th Congress’s arrival next week, they wanted the narrative to focus on the largest House GOP majority since World War II partnering with a new Senate majority to craft a unified agenda to buck President Obama.

Boehner and McCarthy’s statements also leave room for a change of heart. If the story dies down, Scalise will most likely survive. But if more damaging stories start to trickle out, the GOP leader could be back on the hot seat, just like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (La.), who resigned from leadership in 2002 under pressure over racially charged comments.

Because the comments touch on race, they have the potential to do damage to the GOP brand at a time when the party is gearing up to attract more supporters ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

House Republicans are hoping to showcase a more diverse membership when the 114th Congress gavels in next week. The GOP will welcome the first black female GOP lawmaker in party history, Mia Love (R-Utah). Fellow freshman Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) will join her as the only two black Republican lawmakers in the House.

After the midterm elections, Scalise touted the incoming GOP freshmen as “a great new diverse group of members.”

In a brief statement, Love said that she hasn’t spoken to Scalise about the appearance and found it “difficult” to comment.

“All I can say is that, from my experience, the Majority Whip has been extremely helpful to me and all of my colleagues,” she said.  

On top of its white supremacist message, Duke’s group has made a number of anti-Semitic statements too.

The GOP will only have one Jewish representative in 2015, Lee Zeldin (N.Y.). Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is Jewish, lost his primary this year, setting off the leadership musical chairs that helped elevate Scalise.

Zeldin said that he believes Scalise and that the scandal won’t change his perception of the majority whip or hamper the Republican Party’s image.

“This doesn't undercut Republican progress towards reaching minorities and the Jewish community,” he said in a statement.

“Regardless of their party affiliation, ethnicity, or religion, Americans are unhappy with the direction our country has been headed under President Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, which we saw expressed during the Republican sweep this election.”

Lott (R-Miss.) lost his leadership spot when he praised the presidential run of noted segregationist Strom Thurmond at the retiring South Carolina GOP senator’s 100th birthday party that year.

“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it,” he said. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Despite apologizing and calling his remarks a “poor choice of words”, the damage had been done. Many Republicans, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, criticized his comments. When the controversy refused to die down, Lott ultimately stepped down as Senate majority leader.

For Scalise, the more-than-a-decade-old revelations came during a slow holiday week, which could serve as another problem. 

Several conservatives, unhappy with what they see as an weak leadership, have begun to use the issue to press for more changes among top House members.

Influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson has said he didn’t believe Scalise’s statement that he wasn’t aware of the group’s message. Radio host Mark Levin called for the resignation of the entire GOP leadership team on his Facebook page, while Fox News host Sean Hannity said Boehner should go and be replaced with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).