By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives defended Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise on Tuesday after he came under fire for speaking to a group of white supremacists in 2002, when he was a state lawmaker.
Scalise, the No. 3 Republican in the House, acknowledged speaking at an event in a New Orleans suburb hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
The admission prompted criticism and raised questions about the future of Scalise's leadership position, but House Speaker John Boehner said Scalise was a man of integrity and expressed "full confidence" in him.
"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 a statement. "He will continue to do great and important work for Americans."
Scalise has said he was not familiar with EURO's ideology, and the speech was one of many he made at the time about cutting wasteful state spending.
"It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold," Scalise said in a statement.
The civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist organizations, classifies EURO as a hate group. A senior fellow at the center, Mark Potok, called for Scalise's resignation.
"I find it extremely difficult to believe that a Louisiana-based politician with national aspirations did not know who David Duke and EURO were. I think that fails the smell test," he said.
The controversy comes one week before Republicans take control of both chambers of the new Congress.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 House Republican, also backed Scalise. He said Scalise had acknowledged the mistake and condemned EURO's stances.
"I've known him as a friend for many years and I know that he does not share the beliefs of that organization," McCarthy said in a statement.
Other Republicans were more critical. Ethics & Public Policy Center Senior Fellow Peter Wehner, who served under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, called for Scalise's resignation on Twitter.
"The party of Lincoln shouldn't have as its No. 3 a keynoter at a white supremacist convention," Wehner wrote.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Tuesday the reports about the Scalise appearance were "deeply troubling."
(Reporting By Amanda Becker in Washington; additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in New Orleans; Editing by John Whitesides and Gunna Dickson)