As political scandals go, the revelation that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002 has yet to turn on the full outrage machine that other Republicans have had to endure for similar ill-fated actions.
Though several top Democrats have condemned Scalise, the support of his party's leadership and the silence of many House Democrats have provided Scalise with some political cover. For now, anyway.
Scalise has admitted he spoke to a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as a state representative, but says that at the time he did not pay close attention to the details of the group or its "abhorrent" beliefs. The speech, Scalise said, was the product of sloppy vetting rather than an unseemly alliance.
That explanation appears to satisfy House Speaker John Boehner, who issued a statement Tuesday making clear he supported the third-ranking GOP leader.
"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 in the statement. "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."
That statement came soon after a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the report "deeply troubling" and condemned Boehner for not having spoken out.
Surely the timing of the news—with many staffers still on vacation and members back in their districts—has contributed to the lack of responses. Some members of the House Republican leadership and most members of the Congressional Black Caucus have yet to weigh in. Their responses—or lack thereof—will go a long way toward determining Scalise's political future. For now, he awaits the return of Congress and a new batch of responses as more of his colleagues face media queries.
"By rallying around Scalise, Republican leaders are doing a good job of starving the oxygen out of this crisis," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. Bonjean is a former spokesman for ex-Sen. Trent Lott, who left his post as minority leader after comments surfaced of him praising the segregationist presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Boehner's support, Bonjean said, "certainly helps them create a better scene-setter heading into next week than if they'd left him twisting in the wind."
Both the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee expressed incredulity that Scalise wasn't aware of the group's positions or ties to Duke. Yet members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who stand to make the most political hay from a political rival's appearance with a hate group, have been largely silent.
In fact, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a black Louisiana Democrat who in the past has not shied away from lashing out at in-state GOP colleagues, came to Scalise's defense. "I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body," he said. "Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character."
While Rep. Yvette Clarke has called for an investigation into Scalise's 2002 appearance, most of her CBC colleagues have been less eager to condemn Scalise. Staffers for Reps. Terri Sewell, Keith Ellison, and John Lewis—a longtime civil-rights leader—declined responses or referred questions to CBC leadership. Outgoing caucus Chair Marcia Fudge and incoming Chair G.K. Butterfield did not respond to requests for comment.
More than a dozen staffers for CBC members also did not respond to questions about Scalise. Many of them are likely on vacation, but the muted response has so far made the firestorm easier to withstand for Scalise.
The CBC's silence has kept the political pressure from escalating as much as it could have, Bonjean said. "Has it helped the Republican leadership? Absolutely," he said. Still, he noted, the caucus often coordinates its responses when back in Washington, and it's too early to say it won't weigh in—especially if new facts come to light.
With days until the new Congress gets underway, Washington is waiting to see whether the slow drip of responses turns into a full-fledged deluge—and whether coordinated CBC outrage could be enough to keep the story at the fore of the news cycle as Republicans take control of both chambers of Congress.
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