Rep. Steve Scalise played a crucial role in whipping votes for a flood insurance bill that split congressional conservatives, drawing notice on Capitol Hill at a time when ambitious House Republicans are jockeying for leadership positions in 2015.
The Louisiana Republican is mentioned as possible majority whip in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, and his cooperation with Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to move bipartisan flood insurance legislation to President Obama's desk was viewed by some GOP insiders as an audition for his leadership ambitions. Cantor, considered House Speaker John Boehner's likely successor if the Ohioan steps down after the election, could tap Scalise to run for whip in the possible shakeup.
Scalise's southeastern Louisiana 1st District surrounds flood-prone Lake Pontchartrain and is at major risk for hurricane-generated inundation. Prioritizing a flood insurance package that ensures the federal government continues to subsidize coverage for vulnerable homeowners was an obvious move for Scalise and other conservatives who represent at-risk constituents. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose home state of Texas includes a storm-battered Gulf Coast region, was among the Republicans to support the bill.
But Scalise is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of House conservatives. The RSC typically focuses on crafting conservative alternatives to leadership-backed legislation, which often is drafted with a political eye toward consensus and passage. So Republicans saw more than local politics at work when Scalise decided to support the flood insurance bill championed by Cantor and Rep. Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, over legislation written by the panel's chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
“Scalise is an operator, and this is an example of how he can put things together, even if it’s messy — and this assuredly was messy,” said a House Republican who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act passed the GOP-controlled House on March 4 and was later approved by the Democratic Senate and signed into law by Obama. The program limits flood insurance rate increases on homeowners by subsidizing premiums. For House Republicans, the intraparty debate was acrimonious.
After Hensarling declined to sufficiently moderate his proposal, Cantor sidestepped him and negotiated directly on a final bill with Waters, of California. Tea Party-affiliated groups, like the Club for Growth, backed Hensarling, who might have leadership aspirations of his own and attempted to derail the bipartisan package supported by leadership and a collection of conservative, pragmatic and moderate Republicans who represent districts in flood zones.
Some conservatives were disappointed in Scalise for collaborating with Cantor. They expressed sympathy for the pressure the Louisianan faced at home, but said that as RSC chairman he should have been less concerned about politics and at least tried to push Hensarling’s proposal. In an interview, Scalise said the legislation delivered important conservative reforms to the flood insurance program and argued that his effort helped prevent the more liberal Senate version of the bill from gaining traction.
Scalise, 48, denied that any leadership aspirations he might have influenced his decision to whip the bill.
“From my perspective, I thought there was a role to play to make sure we had the most conservative outcome that could pass,” Scalise told the Washington Examiner on Monday during a brief telephone interview. “Obviously a lot of people are focused on what happens next year — and I’m not one of those people. If you focus on doing your job that you have today then everything takes care of itself.”
Running for caucus leadership positions is a sensitive topic, and members are generally loathe to discuss their plans publicly. However, with the Nov. 4 midterms approaching and intense speculation about Boehner's future, House Republicans are accelerating their preparations for leadership elections that will occur soon after Election Day. If Boehner decides to step down as speaker, Cantor is not expected to face much competition in his bid to replace him.
The contests for majority leader and majority whip, decided by members who will serve in the next Congress, could be similarly muted, with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., succeeding Cantor and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., replacing McCarthy. But some GOP insiders are predicting that after eight years of relatively stable leadership at the top, there will be a heated competition for at least one of the slots.
The list of possible whip candidates includes Scalise, Roskam and House Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010 and 2012. Others also could run. If Cantor is the next speaker, Republican sources believe he might encourage Scalise to run for whip, and quietly support him, to placate anxious conservatives who want more representation at the leadership table.
Republican operatives who view Scalise favorably describe the four-term congressman as a conservative with the political bandwidth to broaden his appeal among the various cliques that comprise the GOP caucus and attract the necessary votes. Additionally, they say, he has the political and policy acumen necessary to be effective in that post.
In interviews, multiple House Republicans, GOP congressional aides and party operatives who work in downtown Washington confirmed that the jockeying for committee slots and elected leadership has become more intense and more overt in recent weeks.
“There’s a lot of potential leadership races out there,” said a second Republican member, who also requested anonymity to speak freely. “There are a number of issues, internal squabbles going on … that appear to have at least in the background, if not in the foreground — are being affected by potential leadership [races].”