"Congrats on the rule vote!"
Majority Whip Steve Scalise has just barreled into a senior staff meeting in his sun-lit, third-story Capitol office to this unusual greeting.
It's not often leaders get congratulated for heralding a menial procedural vote to passage, but the Louisianan is fresh from the House floor where six rebellious conservatives voted against a rule, and he is in high spirits. The previous Friday, that number sat at 34—including three from his own whip team, who were summarily fired. Still, both motions advancing debate on elements of a trade deal passed, and Scalise is laughing heartily.
"A few others pointed out [to the rebels], 'You know, we actually lost,'" Scalise guffawed to his staff, explaining why some votes had switched since Friday. "A lot of the members were not in the same place."
That Scalise is celebrating losing just six members of his own party on a vote that would have been automatic not long ago neatly illustrates the environment in the House Republican Conference these days. But Scalise knew that coming in, and in fact exploited that same discontent to propel himself exactly a year ago to the position of the third-highest ranking House Republican.
When then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor surprisingly lost his primary, leaving a vacancy in leadership, Scalise ran an upstart bid and bested the presumed frontrunner, then-Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, by promising to bridge the chasm between restive conservatives and their party leaders. He would be the Right's man for the job, his surrogates promised.
One year into his tenure as Majority Whip, it would be a stretch to say he has succeeded on that front; relations between leaders and those they view as rogues within their own ranks are as bad as ever.
The opposition, many of whom voted for Scalise for whip, has organized into the House Freedom Caucus with the express purpose of pushing leadership further to the right. To date, at least five members have resigned or been booted from the whip team because they wanted to vote against leadership's priorities. And Scalise struggled to maintain his position when it was revealed that he had spoken in front of a white supremacist group as a state legislator in 2002, a scandal from which some of his colleagues initially thought he might not recover.
Still, House Republicans have tussled through to some surprising policy victories on his watch, especially in the past few months, and many of Scalise's colleagues say the brand of Southern retail politics he has injected into the GOP's managerial structure has been effective.
"It's always been known that we have different factions within our conference, but we've worked hard to address the things we want to move together forward on as a team," Scalise said in an interview after the meeting.
Bridging those factions, almost any member will note, is the chief challenge of the job.
That being the case, Scalise's office décor is symbolically appropriate. On the pastel groin-vaulted ceiling, four frontiersmen are painted, each performing a task in the Wild West: fishing, hunting, chopping wood, prospecting. To the right of a sturdy brick fireplace hang souvenirs from another contact sport—New Orleans Saints and Louisiana State University Tigers football jerseys, each with the words "GOP Whip" sewed in the nameplate.
Scalise has the thankless task of twisting arms and counting votes among his colleagues to ensure legislation passes. That has become harder without the persuasive tools of prior whips, particularly earmarks. So Scalise has followed in the nice-guy mold of his predecessor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He frequently gives small gifts to his colleagues: "lagniappe," as he calls them, Cajun for "a little something extra." And, his colleagues say, he listens.
"He's constantly circulating among the members, and has mastered the lost art of listening," said Rep. Tom McClintock, who has been a staunch critic of leadership, but who supported Scalise for whip. "His interest is not in just how you're voting but why you're voting that way and what can be done to bring consensus."
As a high point in his first year, Scalise points to a July 2014 $694 million supplemental spending border bill, one he is credited with rescuing from oblivion by bringing together a broad coalition of Republicans, including many of the conference's most right-wing voices.
"It didn't become law, but at least the House passed something controversial on immigration that ended up uniting us when people thought there was no way we could get it done," Scalise said.
Conservatives also see that as a high-water mark in their quest to influence leaders, and one that has built up a reservoir of goodwill for Scalise. Yet other members note that his attempts to build legislation from the bottom up by appeasing the Far Right ends up marginalizing main-street Republicans, producing legislation that cannot break through the dam of Senate and White House opposition.
"It's always important to try to have conversations, but you do reach a point—and we're about there—at which there's just nothing that you can get these guys to ever vote for," said Rep. Devin Nunes, an ardent critic of the Freedom Caucus.
Furthermore, the border saga set a high bar that cannot often be recreated. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus member who originally supported a third, farther right candidate for whip, says he was hopeful the border bill was going to be a sign of things to come. But he says Scalise hasn't met that standard much since.
"Scalise can advocate on behalf of the rank and file, and I know he's done that a little bit," Mulvaney said. But, he adds, "there's a growing group of people who feel like they're not having the opportunity to participate in the process. That's what drove that rule vote the other day. Not only being excluded from the process, but the process is being used against us."
That discontent reached a crescendo earlier in the year, as over the course of five successive weeks, Scalise and the leadership team were putting out fire after fire. Three measures—a border bill separate from last year's, an abortion bill, and an education bill—had to be pulled from the floor schedule for lack of support.
"We deal with a lot of issues that are unrelated in one sense, but a lot of times they become related just because, if you had a big fight last week on a bill, sometimes it bleeds over to a totally unrelated bill the following week," Scalise said. "The important part of a strong whip operation is knowing where members are, and if our membership isn't where we need to be on a bill, I think it makes a lot more sense to pull back and get it right as opposed to just going forward blindly and running off a cliff."
Scalise says things turned around when the House and Senate were able to pass a budget, something many Congress members thought had become impossible amid disputes between fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. Leadership resurrected the abortion bill too, and have since passed legislation paying doctors who treat Medicare patients and avoided a near-shutdown of the Homeland Security Department—sometimes by seeking votes in their own party and sometimes by seeking out Democrats who can make up for their absence.
So for all the wrangling over the procedure on trade this week — that bill finally passed, as well — leadership has in recent months been moving in the right direction.
All that has makes Scalise's job easier. Rather than frantically battling through issues, the team can work proactively to build support for passable legislation well before it hits the floor.
Back in the staff meeting, Scalise and his crew bound among several upcoming issues: In addition to trade, the topic du jour, the conference is working toward a policy solution should the Supreme Court strike down key parts of the Affordable Care Act (congressional Republicans released a rough blueprint the next day). The whip team is ensuring a resolution calling for a troop drawdown in Iraq and Syria doesn't pass (they sent an email alert to GOP offices, and the measure later failed). And the team is working to bring back the No Child Left Behind rewrite that was embarrassingly pulled from the House floor this year, trying to reconcile Education Chairman John Kline's blueprint with demands from the influential outside group Heritage Action, which is dead set against it.
"It's not always going to be readily apparent, but we do identify the problems as we see them," Scalise said. "What's most important is we fix the problems before the bill gets to the floor, and we've done that."