Here's the pitch: House Whip Scalise can play hardball

AP News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2015 3:44 AM
Here's the pitch: House Whip Scalise can play hardball

WASHINGTON (AP) — Are you a Republican House member who can't decide whether to vote "aye" or "nay" on controversial legislation? Please step through this door between sculptures in Statuary Hall and into a quiet, curved parlor you may never have noticed. Have a seat by the fireplace — on the left-hand side — where Abraham Lincoln is said to have warmed himself on chilly nights.

Now tell House Majority Whip Steve Scalise your concerns about that bill. What do you need to "get to 'yes'?"

Perspective — or flattery — is just one tool the four-term Louisiana congressman deploys as the Republicans' vote-counting whip, perhaps the hardest job in Congress these days given the sometimes bitter split between conservatives and GOP leaders over difficult legislation. On Wednesday, Scalise, his whip team and their powers of persuasion face their biggest test so far when the GOP budget proposal — representing the party's priorities — comes before the House.

"This is our broad vision document," Scalise said during a "Lincoln Room" interview Tuesday on the eve of the budget vote. "It'll be a good week this week. We'll do some big things."

House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team, which includes Scalise, have struggled through the first months of the new Congress to show they're really in charge. Though Boehner has a near-historic number of 245 members, it's still not enough to ensure he can line up a majority on any given bill. Again and again, on issues like immigration, education and abortion, House Republicans have split, generally over the question of whether to compromise for the sake of passing legislation. GOP leaders have had to postpone votes, recount members for and against, and call last-minute meetings to prevail, when possible.

Most recently, 52 conservatives embarrassed GOP leaders by voting down a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks because it did not reverse President Barack Obama's directive easing deportation rules on millions of immigrants here illegally.

"Boehner can't count!" crowed Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., as the bill went down. Later, the funding passed without the immigration provision, and Obama signed it into law.

More difficult votes loom as the clock ticks to 2016 and the next time Americans choose a president and members of Congress. They include multiple spending bills and boosting the nation's borrowing authority.

Much of the responsibility for showing the nation the GOP can govern falls to the 49-year-old Metarie, Louisiana, native and his political power tools. In many ways, it's a tougher job than it's ever been. Congressional leaders no longer can dole out pork-barrel projects, or earmarks, which for decades were powerful incentive to move undecided lawmakers from "nay" to "aye."

But Scalise has an array of other approaches, from the "Lincoln Room" to his friendly manner and Whip It Good, a joint campaign fundraising committee that he unveiled over the weekend with chief deputy whip Patrick McHenry.

"Look, we're a larger conference than we'd ever had to whip. I think we're a newer conference in the sense of looking at the amount of time that the members have been around," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. Of Scalise, he said, "If he can get that good week (on the budget), I think he's sort of earned his spurs."

Scalise's style, Republicans say, involves more charm and pragmatism than, say, that of former whip Tom DeLay, the Texan whose nickname was "the Hammer."

Scalise "is just very personable, very forthright in what he wants to accomplish," said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., one of the conservative dissidents who voted against a nine-month bill to fund Homeland Security. "He said, 'Where you at on this?' I said, 'I can't support this.' He said, 'I understand,' and he moved on."

But on the budget, Scalise showed that he's willing to play hardball, and palace intrigue ensued. Late at night last week, Scalise and McHenry tried to intervene in a Budget Committee dispute over defense spending. Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., had warned that tea party-aligned Republicans wouldn't swallow the leadership's bid to increase military spending without clearly offsetting the cost elsewhere. Scalise did his own count, and found that Price was correct.

Going over the chairman's head left a sour taste with some Republicans.

"It wasn't the outcome, it was the process of a chairman not being treated properly at the eleventh hour," said freshman Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va.

Cole and others pointed out that the whips had to make sure the budget document reported by the committee could survive a vote by the whole House — to avoid another embarrassment.

Agreed Scalise, "The policy is what matters the most, and getting it right is important."