Scalise casts shadow on GOP

The new Congress is off to a difficult start for House Republicans. And it hasn’t even begun.

Monday’s revelation that House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOn The Money: Senate approves 4B spending bill | China imposes new tariffs on billion in US goods | Ross downplays new tariffs: 'Nobody's going to actually notice' Scalise tells Canada: Make a deal on trade or be left behind GOP: The economy will shield us from blue wave MORE (R-La.) spoke at a white supremacist event in 2002 as a state representative is just the latest in a series of member-related problems for Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker GOP senator says he 'regularly' considers leaving Republican Party Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers MORE (R-Ohio).

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Instead of placing undivided attention on crafting a legislative wish list for the Republican-controlled Congress, Boehner has had to hit the phones to do damage control for his members.

The Speaker took action on one of the problems on Monday, when he engineered the resignation of Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who pled guilty to felony tax evasion last week.

Grimm initially bucked calls to step down but had a change of heart after speaking with Boehner — a piece of good news for a Speaker who has sought to take a hard line on member ethical lapses.

Yet the news about Scalise will cast a cloud over the first week of Congress, with inevitable questions about whether the third-ranking Republican should keep his leadership position given his talk 12 years ago with a group tied to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

Scalise will be surrounded by reporters upon his return to Washington, and it will distract from the GOP’s official message.

It’s not the only potential distraction for Boehner and his conference, either.

Earlier this month, a former aide to Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdAP Analysis: 25 state lawmakers running in 2018 have been accused of sexual misconduct Ex-lawmakers see tough job market with trade groups Republican wins right to replace Farenthold in Congress MORE (R-Texas) filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit against her old office. She alleges she was improperly fired, and that another aide told her Farenthold had “sexual fantasies” about her. Farenthold has denied the charges.

A senior Republican aide downplayed the notion that the Scalise story or any other personal issues of members will be a drain on Boehner’s time or agenda.

“Our focus remains on jobs, and that isn’t changing just because of cyclical member management issues,” the aide said.

“The Speaker has a proven record of dealing with difficult issues swiftly and fairly, and in a fashion that keeps the focus on our legislative agenda. Nothing is going to get in the way of our team’s focus on the American people’s priorities.”

The beginning of 2015 should be a time for celebration for Republicans, who are taking over the Senate and will have the biggest House majority they’ve enjoyed since President Harry Truman’s administration.

The conference is gearing up to take on President Obama and prepare to achieve its goal of taking back the White House in 2016.

Damaging stories touching on racism and sexism have the potential not only to distract, but to damage the GOP brand.

Scalise on Monday denounced the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, to which he spoke in 2002. 

“I didn't know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group," he said in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday. “For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” he said.

His office also pushed back, arguing that Scalise, who a state representative at the time, didn’t know about the group’s leanings.

Many people have expressed doubt, however, that Scalise could not have known who the group was given its name and David Duke’s prominence in the state of Louisiana.

“By 2002, everybody knew that Duke was still the man he claimed not to be. EVERYBODY,” influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote Monday on RedState.com. “How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?”

Democrats have seized on all three issues.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ Russia probe accelerates political prospects for House Intel Dems Pelosi calls on Ryan to bring long-term Violence Against Women Act to floor MORE (D-Calif.) pressed on Boehner to call for Grimm to resign, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Tuesday condemned what it termed the “silence” of GOP leaders on the Scalise story.

The DCCC made it clear it saw the issue as an opportunity to underline its claims that the Republican Party does not stand for minority groups.

“Steve Scalise chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis at a white supremacist rally and now his fellow House Republican Leaders can’t even speak up and say he was wrong,” said DCCC National Press Secretary Josh Schwerin.

“Republicans in Congress might talk about improving their terrible standing with non-white voters, but it’s clear their leadership has a history of embracing anti-Semitic, racist hate groups,” Schwerin continued. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) faced a similar storm in 2002 after he commented at the 100th birthday party for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that he was proud to have voted with others for the segregationist when he ran for president in 1948. Lott added, “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

The comments led to Lott’s resignation from GOP leadership after many Republicans dropped their support for him. Lott fell in part because of additional stories that suggested his comments about Thurmond were a part of a pattern.

Whether Scalise faces similar calls to resign, and whether Boehner comes under pressure to push him to go, will likely be determined by what comes out in the next few days.

In his interview with The Times-Picayune, Scalise didn’t directly engage when asked whether this would have an impact on his position in leadership.

“At the end of the day, you are judged by your character,” he said.

“I'm proud of my record of working to help people throughout my years of public service.

 — This story was updated at 11:38 a.m.