Dramatic return stirs Scalise speculation on Capitol Hill

Greg Nash

He moved slowly, gingerly, through the Capitol, leaning on a pair of crutches for support.

But everywhere he went, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was greeted like a rock star: standing ovations, cheers, handshakes, hugs and selfies.

The Louisiana Republican’s dramatic return to the Capitol on Thursday — 15 weeks since he nearly lost his life in a shooting on a Virginia baseball field — had GOP lawmakers and aides buzzing about whether they just witnessed a future Speaker of the House.

“His experience this summer has elevated his heart and mind, along with his profile,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who serves with Scalise on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a physician and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “Anyone who can endure that trauma is capable of pretty much anything.”

“I think we saw a future president, governor, speaker,” added a third GOP lawmaker. “Whatever Steve wants to do, he can do.”


Lawmakers gushed over Scalise’s roughly 20-minute address on the House floor, saying it hit all the right notes. It also gave him an opportunity to showcase his oratory skills. While he occasionally peered down at his notes, Scalise spoke mostly off the cuff and from the heart, causing many of his House colleagues to choke up.

“Best speech I ever witnessed in my life,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who was moved to tears.

“The speech touched everyone in the House,” added Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who serves on the leadership team with Scalise.

Upon walking into the House chamber, Scalise greeted his close friend from Louisiana, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He also pumped his fist in the air several times.

Scalise, 51, thanked God, his family, well-wishers from around the world and the police officers, colleagues and medical team who saved his life that day in June when a gunman opened fire on Republicans practicing for a congressional charity baseball game in Alexandria, Va.

Scalise, a member of his security detail, a Hill staffer and a lobbyist were hit by the gunfire.

“I’m definitely a living example that miracles really do happen,” said Scalise, whose speech was interrupted several times by standing ovations.

He also tried to fit his harrowing experience into a broader, global context. Scalise was most surprised, he said, by the outpouring of support he received from world leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

“They really count on us to be successful,” Scalise explained. “They know the United States being strong is critical to the rest of the world having the opportunity for freedom.”

The bullet that struck Scalise in the hip on June 14 shattered his femur, tore into several vital organs, caused severe internal bleeding — and nearly took his life.

But the shooting also elevated Scalise’s national profile, turned him into a sympathetic figure and helped resurrect a political career that some said had hit its ceiling in the majority whip’s office.

In December 2014, just six months after winning the race for the No. 3 leadership job, Scalise found himself embroiled in a major scandal. A blogger discovered that as a state lawmaker in 2002, Scalise had given a speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a white-supremacist group that had ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Some Democrats called on Scalise to resign from leadership or from Congress altogether.

But Scalise weathered the political storm, thanks in large part to Richmond. The Democratic, African-American lawmaker had served with Scalise in the Louisiana statehouse and insisted to the media that his friend did not have a “racist bone in his body.”

Richmond’s defense killed any momentum Democrats might have had inflicting permanent damage on the GOP whip and chief vote counter.

Still, in the years since, many rank-and-file Republicans said the scandal turned Scalise politically toxic and would inhibit his rise in leadership.

In fact, when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned in the fall of 2015 and his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), couldn’t muster the 218 votes to succeed him, Republicans didn’t look to Scalise to fill the role.

They instead turned to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Ryan, who is approaching his second anniversary as Speaker, is secure in his position for now. But should he step aside sometime next year or in the near future, it’s possible Scalise could be the one to take his place.

GOP lawmakers and aides say there’s no chance Scalise would try to leapfrog McCarthy to the Speaker’s office. The two men have grown close during their years in leadership, and McCarthy was seated next to Scalise Thursday during his floor speech.

“I don’t see him jumping McCarthy,” one House GOP chief of staff said of Scalise.

But if McCarthy once again stumbles in his quest for the Speaker seat and can’t cobble together enough votes, Scalise, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, will be waiting in the wings — and now with renewed goodwill among the party.

Scalise’s return to the Capitol was kept under wraps and carefully choreographed by his team. On Thursday morning, he sat down in the ceremonial Speaker’s office with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” his first media interview since the shooting. It will air Sunday night.

As he emerged from the room, he briefly stopped to greet a dozen reporters who had assembled outside.

“It’s good to be back,” Scalise said, clutching his crutches. “It shows that if you fight and persevere, you can overcome anything.”

His dramatic narrative brings to mind stories from history, where assassinations and assassination attempts have catapulted many politicians’ careers or profiles.

In 1978, then-San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announced on live TV that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and killed in City Hall. She was appointed mayor and later was elected a Democratic senator from California. She still serves.

The 2011 assassination attempt of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) caused serious brain injury and forced her to resign her seat in Congress. But it made her a household name and a national leader in the fight for tougher gun-control laws.

“These are times in the history of the Congress that are extraordinary,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who likened Scalise’s return to the day Giffords came back to the Capitol seven months after she was shot in the head.

Tags Boehner Dianne Feinstein John Boehner Paul Ryan

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