While House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseFifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Democratic leaders racing toward Monday infrastructure vote House GOP to whip against bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (R-La.) led a delegation of lawmakers to Europe and Africa over the Easter recess, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Fifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Watch live: McCarthy holds briefing with reporters MORE (R-Calif.) was back in Washington attending a small, private dinner with President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE.
It was, perhaps, the most recent illustration of how McCarthy has been playing the inside game with Trump, ensuring that there’s little political daylight — or literal distance — between him and the president.
McCarthy and Scalise, the No. 2 and No. 3 House GOP leaders, respectively, have been vying for Trump’s affection as they quietly run a shadow campaign to replace Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE if the Wisconsin Republican suddenly quits Congress after the November midterm elections.
Some lawmakers predict Trump could be the deciding factor in who wins. While his approval ratings hover in the low 40s, Trump is enormously popular with House GOP lawmakers and the conservative base.
“That is the Trump card,” explained one GOP lawmaker who is neutral but has been closely watching the budding rivalry.
“I think one of them will get Trump to show some sort of support, and that’s the guy. Everything else is Plan B,” added a senior GOP aide. “If that works out, you’re set.”
In separate statements, McCarthy and Scalise said they are backing Ryan as Speaker while keeping their focus on retaining the House majority this fall.
But across Capitol Hill, the race between the two men has become part of the GOP conversation. And in the Trump primary, many observers see McCarthy as holding the edge.
During the 2016 presidential race, McCarthy was one of the earliest and highest-profile congressional backers of Trump.
On Fox News last month, McCarthy sided with Trump in calling for a second special counsel to investigate allegations of political bias at the FBI and Justice Department; two days later, Scalise issued a statement taking the same position.
Over the recess, McCarthy began working with the White House on a rescission package to cut spending hikes from the just-passed $1.3 trillion omnibus legislation after Trump expressed outrage about the pricey government funding bill.
The dinner with Trump and his supporters, in a private space inside the posh City Center in downtown Washington, came a couple days later. McCarthy flew out from California to attend, then returned to his Bakersfield district for other meetings.
McCarthy has gone to great lengths to curry favor with the president, who fondly calls him “my Kevin” in public. While flying aboard Air Force One last fall, McCarthy noticed Trump’s preference for the pink and red Starbursts — so he sent a jar full of them to the president as a gift, according to The Washington Post.
But Scalise has also caught the eye of Trump, who bestowed his own pet nickname on the majority whip: the “legend of Louisiana.”
During the State of the Union address, Trump heaped praise on Scalise for surviving a near-fatal shooting during a GOP baseball practice last summer and marveled at how quickly Scalise returned to work.
There’s no doubt that Scalise, who recently transitioned to crutches after months of navigating the Capitol in a motorized scooter, has seen his political star rise since the June 14 shooting.
But his newly elevated status didn’t stop Trump from dressing down Scalise during a televised White House meeting on gun reform in February. Scalise tried to convince Trump to keep a background check bill tied to a concealed carry measure — an idea Trump quickly swatted down.
“I’m with you, but let it be a separate bill,” Trump told Scalise. “If you add conceal carry to this, you’ll never get it passed.”
Rank-and-file Republicans can’t help but view both McCarthy’s and Scalise’s moves through the lens of potential Speaker bids.
One Republican even suggested that McCarthy is only entertaining the idea of a rescission package to ingratiate himself with the president and conservative House members — two constituencies whose support could be crucial in the Speaker race.
“That will be a symbolic measure that won’t get enacted,” retiring Rep. Charlie DentCharles (Charlie) Wieder DentThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Influential Republicans threaten to form new party MORE (R-Pa.) told The Hill. “So why are we doing a rescission package? Out of fear that this could affect climbing up the leadership ladder.”
Teaming up with Trump on rescission is a stroke of political genius, added some GOP aides.
“As Scalise’s star seems to be rising, McCarthy is doing the right thing by shoring up his relationship with the president while simultaneously courting conservatives,” said the senior GOP aide. “Nobody should think the timing is an accident. Trump feels he lost his base here, so anyone that restores that trust will earn political capital.”
A second GOP aide agreed, saying McCarthy “is being advised very well. That’s some very good staff work. Whoever is advising McCarthy, that was a brilliant move.”
Even if McCarthy had Trump’s official endorsement, however, there is no guarantee that the No. 2 Republican would be a shoo-in for the job.
McCarthy abruptly dropped his bid to replace then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) in 2015, saying he was worried he wouldn’t have enough support to effectively preside over the Republican conference. Ryan, McCarthy’s close friend and ally, was elected Speaker instead.
And not all are convinced that Trump would even get involved in a leadership race on Capitol Hill to begin with.
“My gut is that the president will stay out of the race like this,” said one well-placed GOP source. “Sure, he’s closer with McCarthy, but he loves Scalise too. So I can’t imagine him lobbying on behalf of one or the other.”
In a statement, McCarthy said he hopes Ryan “is our Speaker for a very long time.”
“The only office I am focused on are the offices of each and every member in our conference, and ensuring we continue to earn the American people’s trust and keep the House Republican Majority to continue delivering on President Trump’s agenda,” McCarthy said.
Scalise, too, praised Ryan in a similar statement to The Hill.
“Whip Scalise is proud to serve alongside Speaker Ryan, and fully supports him to remain Speaker,” said Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine. “Our whole leadership team is focused on working with President Trump to deliver more conservative wins for the country, and also ensuring we keep the majority so we can continue implementing President Trump’s agenda that is getting our economy back on track.”