Rep. McHenry filling in as House whip at crucial time

Rep. McHenry filling in as House whip at crucial time
© Greg Nash

With House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, his top lieutenant, Patrick McHenry, is stepping in to temporarily run the House GOP’s vote-counting operation.

McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, has been Scalise’s right-hand man since he won the race for majority whip exactly three years ago Monday. At that time, Scalise named McHenry his chief deputy, a post that gave him office space in the Capitol and a coveted seat at the leadership table. 

“McHenry has filled in for Scalise on multiple occasions in the past and he will do the same now,” said a GOP leadership aide who knows both lawmakers. “Whip Scalise selected McHenry as chief deputy whip because he trusted him to fill in in his absence, and that is what will happen here.”

Scalise, the No. 3 Republican in leadership, nearly lost his life last Wednesday when a gunman opened fire on a GOP congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., injuring the congressman and four others.

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His doctors at MedStar Washington Hospital Center won’t speculate when the 51-year-old majority whip might be able to return to work. But Scalise — who was shot in the hip and suffered significant blood loss, broken bones and damage to internal organs — is expected to be out for weeks, if not months, given the severity of his injuries.

However, over the weekend, the hospital said Scalise’s condition had improved to “serious” from “critical” and that he was communicating with family members and watching a Louisiana State University baseball game. 

GOP lawmakers and aides are trying to be sensitive in describing McHenry’s expanded role, saying the priority is making sure Scalise gets better. They say McHenry’s official title, chief deputy whip, will not change.

“It’s so early that everyone’s focus is on Steve’s health and recovery,” said one lawmaker who serves on the GOP whip team. “To my knowledge, there have been almost no conversations about it.”

But asked if McHenry will unofficially be serving as an “acting majority whip,” the lawmaker replied: “As a practical matter, yes.”

In early May, the Scalise-McHenry duo had received much of the credit for corralling the votes needed to pass the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill out of the House after leadership came up short on its first try. Scalise and McHenry were among those who celebrated with President Trump in the White House Rose Garden after the successful vote.

As the whip team faces a number of prickly issues in the coming weeks, they will turn to Scalise for inspiration and McHenry for leadership. Before the August recess, House Republicans will need to pass a fiscal 2018 budget resolution and may take another healthcare vote if the Senate sends over its own bill. Republicans will also need to pass legislation later this year to avert a government shutdown and avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt.

The 41-year-old McHenry, first elected to Congress in 2004 and never without a bow tie, is already stepping up and taking the initiative.

A restless ball of energy, the lawmaker organized a blood drive on Tuesday and Thursday on Capitol Hill in honor of Scalise, Capitol Police special agent Crystal Griner, lobbyist Matt Mika and other victims of the attack, and sent a “Dear Colleague” letter encouraging lawmakers and Hill staffers to donate blood. 

Despite Scalise’s absence, GOP sources said most Capitol observers wouldn’t notice any difference with the whip operation.

Scalise and McHenry have formed a strong partnership over the past three years, and the two share office space on the third floor of the Capitol just above the Speaker’s office. The trio of deputy whips — Reps. Dennis Ross (Fla.), Ann Wagner (Mo.) and Kristi Noem (S.D.) — could be asked to take on more responsibilities.

And the 100-member GOP whip team and the 20-person whip staff, including Scalise chief of staff Brett Horton and McHenry chief of staff Parker Poling, are operating at full strength, sources said. 

“We’re fully staffed up here,” said a second GOP leadership aide. “The office itself will continue to carry out its duties and as Whip Scalise improves, we’re looking forward to him playing a bigger and bigger role.”

Scalise has received a steady stream of visitors since Wednesday’s attack at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park. Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the hospital, as did Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen Pence. 

Top members of the GOP leadership team — Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Defense: Pentagon sees signs of chemical weapons activity in Syria | House votes to reaffirm NATO defense pact | Saudis refuse to ease Qatar demands Overnight Finance: GOP divided over welfare cuts in budget | Lawmaker loses M on pharma stock he pitched | Yellen says another financial crisis unlikely in our lifetimes Overnight Healthcare: Senate delays ObamaCare vote past recess | Trump says GOP 'very close' to deal | Three more senators come out against bill MORE (Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and McHenry — also dropped by the hospital. Others who visited Scalise were his close friend and fellow Louisianan, Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, and his three Washington, D.C., roommates, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin BradyGOP chairman: More tax-reform hearings coming in July Overnight Finance: CBO finds 22M more uninsured under Senate health bill | GOP agrees ObamaCare taxes must go | Supreme Court to look at Dodd-Frank whistleblower protections | More tax reform hearings | Green light for partial travel ban | Highway Trust Fund in need of a long-term fix MORE (R-Texas), Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.).

When Horton stopped by Scalise’s hospital room, the whip managed to ask how his staff was holding up and the conditions of the two Capitol Police officers in his security detail, Griner and David Bailey, who were also injured in the shooting. 

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” said a source close to Scalise.