[Update: This story was updated at 2:30 ET to include new statements from Rep. Steve Scalise and House Speaker John Boehner.]
No sooner had House Speaker John Boehner dispensed with one problem congressman – admitted tax evader Michael Grimm (R) of New York, who is resigning his seat – when another one reared his head. And this situation could be harder to resolve.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, the House majority whip and the No. 3 House Republican, has acknowledged that he spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002, when he was a member of the Louisiana legislature, according to The Washington Post.
But Congressman Scalise says he didn’t know at the time that the organization had troubling connections. The group, called the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, was founded by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. Mr. Duke, a former Louisiana state representative and gubernatorial candidate, was nationally known as a white nationalist, but Scalise’s associates say he wasn’t aware of the group’s link to Duke.
“For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” Scalise told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday night.
On Tuesday, he issued an additional statement, calling his decision to speak to the group "a mistake.”
"Twelve years ago, I spoke to many different Louisiana groups as a state representative, trying to build support for legislation that focused on cutting wasteful state spending, eliminating government corruption, and stopping tax hikes,” Scalise said. "One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
Speaker Boehner also released a statement Tuesday in support of Scalise.
“More than a decade ago, Representative Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate,” Boehner said. “Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know Steve to be a man of high integrity and good character. He has my full confidence as our whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans.”
Louisiana-based political blogger Lamar White Jr. first brought the story to light, after finding posts on the white nationalist website Stormfront.
The Scalise story presents a fresh challenge to the Republican Party over racial matters, on the eve of the next Congress, when the GOP will control both houses. The party has long struggled to attract minorities, in a nation with a growing proportion of nonwhite voters and persistent racial tensions.
Republicans – and some Democrats – have jumped to Scalise’s defense.
“I know Congressman Scalise to be a good man who is fair-minded and kind-hearted,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana, who is Indian-American, said in a statement. “I’m confident he absolutely rejects racism in all its forms.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a black Democrat, also stood up for Scalise.
“I don’t think Steve has a racist bone in his body,” Congressman Richmond told Julia O’Donoghue, a reporter at the Times-Picayune.
But national Democrats pounced on Scalise’s troubles.
“Yesterday, Steve Scalise tried to explain that he didn’t know he was speaking to a white supremacist group when he addressed them as a state legislator. Seriously? He didn’t know?” said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Mo Elleithee in a statement Tuesday. “The group was named the ‘European-American Unity and Rights Organization,’ it was founded by David Duke, and he was invited by two of Duke’s longtime associates. It doesn’t get much more clear than that.”
Mr. Elleithee said Scalise’s explanation “doesn’t pass the smell test and raises far more questions than it answers.”
Scalise has been a House member since 2008, and in Republican leadership for just a few months. He won the majority whip post last summer, after then-majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia unexpectedly lost his primary and resigned. The then-GOP whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, became majority leader, opening up the whip's job.
The next Congress will have more Republican minorities than it has in the recent past. Two black Republicans were elected to the House and one to the Senate in November.
But the Republican Party still has far to go in improving its image among minorities, and the Scalise story doesn’t help. If nothing new comes out on Scalise that links him more firmly to white supremacists, it seems likely he can weather the storm. But reporters are on the case, and that’s an uncomfortable position for any member of Congress.