Tea party Republican breaks through to House GOP leadership

The tea party has claimed its first spot in House leadership with the election of Rep. Steve Scalise to the No. 3 post – majority whip. Will he ease GOP tensions or make them worse?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana smiles after he was elected to be the new House majority whip on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, June 19, 2014.

Now they have it. Now tea party-backers finally have a strong conservative in the Republican leadership of the GOP-controlled House: Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was elected by party members on Thursday to the No. 3 job in the leadership.

The Louisianan will take the position of whip, making him responsible for corralling votes in order to pass legislation. He fills the slot left vacant by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who was elected – and elevated – to the No. 2 job of majority leader, who decides what legislation comes to a vote.

The changes were triggered by majority leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat to a tea party favorite in his June 10 primary in Virginia. Mr. Cantor then announced he would resign his leadership position on July 31.

The addition of Congressman Scalise is expected to push House Republicans further to the right. But the pressing question is whether Scalise will bridge – or aggravate – deep divisions within the party.

With a man who is a Southerner and a conservative as part of the leadership, “we’re in afterglow,” says Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, a member of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 176 conservative Republicans. Scalise chairs the committee, which includes tea party flag bearers.

“He definitely brings a solid, consistent conservative voice to the table,” says Congressman Barton. “He’s going to invigorate the debate.”

That’s an understatement. When Speaker John Boehner – the No. 1 Republican in the House – and whip Congressman McCarthy voted to raise the federal debt ceiling in February, Scalise opposed it. When they voted for a bipartisan budget deal in December, he didn’t go along. When they voted to reopen the federal government with a budget and debt-ceiling agreement last fall, he dissented.

Might this make it impossible for Scalise – who has a gold star rating from the FreedomWorks tea party group – to work with establishment Republicans such as Boehner, who comes from a purple state, and McCarthy, who comes from a blue state?

“The whip is somebody who has to get to know everybody, and work with everybody,” says Ray Smock, a former House historian who now directs the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in West Virginia. “Given the style of the tea party, to be independent and buck authority and buck the establishment, it makes me wonder how effective any tea party candidate would be in that position.”

But colleagues who backed Scalise describe him as someone who can also build consensus – witness his ability to get elected on the first ballot, a feat that few people thought he could pull off given his stiff competition, the current chief deputy whip, Peter Roskam of Illinois. And even while Scalise may buck Speaker Boehner at times, he does get along with him.

With Scalise at the leadership table, he can help work through disagreements before they get to the broader conference, points out Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska. “I think it gives you a greater chance of bringing people together and getting agreement.”

It helps that McCarthy himself is well-liked among members and gets along with most everybody. McCarthy also worked to recruit candidates during the election cycle of 2010 – which brought in the wave of tea party supporters. (Scalise was elected in 2008.)

In terms of policy, Scalise’s election may not be noticed outside Congress this year. The midterms are bearing down on members and they are not likely to accomplish a great deal.

Immigration reform seems just as unlikely as before, if not more so – at least for the short term. “It really doesn’t matter who is in leadership, because you don’t have much wiggle room on immigration,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont-McKenna College in California.

Some tea partyers, however, do not share the afterglow of their Texas colleague. They wanted one of their own for majority leader, Raul Labrador of Idaho.

“The whip’s role is to push the agenda of the speaker and the majority leader, so I don’t think it has as much of an impact as it might if we had a conservative member in the top two spots,” says Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who rode the tea party wave to Washington in 2010. 

“I don’t think grass-roots Republicans are going to be satisfied with the outcome today,” said Congressman Amash, who admitted he was "disappointed."

Many of his colleagues are looking for a housecleaning in the leadership once the midterm elections are over, including booting Boehner, he says. But, he adds, that is unlikely to happen, because by then, this leadership team will have been cemented, and they will be able to win support by handing out committee chairmanships and assignments.

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