Speculation about whether Speaker John Boehner will return for the next Congress is prompting secondary discussions on Capitol Hill about the changes that might happen if he left. One of the most interesting scenarios is a potential race for Whip between Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), the chief deputy whip.
If Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and current Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) moved up slots in Boehner’s absence, GOP lawmakers and aides say Roskam would start off ahead because of his work with McCarthy on the Whip team.
Neither Cantor or McCarthy are entirely safe from growing restlessness among conservatives anxious for a change in the leadership team, but if they each climbed the leadership ladder safely it would put even more pressure on the Whip slot for a more conservative voice at the table.
This is where Scalise comes into the picture, among other names. Republicans like Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) are framing their calls for new blood as a matter of diversity: each of the current members of the “top four” – Speaker, Majority Leader, Whip, and Conference Chair – are from a state President Obama won in 2012. None represent the deep south, where much of the conference hails from.
A prominent lobbyist says “Scalise has all but announced he’s running,” but the Lousiana Republican was more modest in an interview in his office.
“Clearly there’s been a lot of speculation about what may happen with leadership at the end of the year. What’s Boehner going to do? If something changes there then it seems like a lot of other dominoes would fall. I’ve avoided getting into the middle of all that speculation just ’cause that’s not something that any of us know right now,” he tells me.
As RSC chair, Scalise would seem to have a ready-made constituency in the GOP’s conservative caucus. However, his low-key leadership of the group, while appealing to a wide swath of Republicans, has disappointed some on the right flank of the GOP.
“He’s been fine. He’s no Jim Jordan. He hasn’t been bad. I think he’s been fair,” says Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC). Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) calls the Scalise-led RSC an “arm of leadership.”
“I actually think he’d be very good at whip. He’s not a big-vision kind of guy, but he can make and use personal relationships to advance a goal–something that makes for a great whip. The real question is whether he’s watering down the RSC now to better make his case that he can be whip,” a senior GOP aide says.
Scalise says he’s pushed Boehner and other leaders in a more conservative direction from behind the scenes.
After a bloated farm bill fell in defeat on the House floor, “I talked to Kevin McCarthy, I talked to Eric Cantor the next day and said, we’d like to split this. We can deliver the votes. I think initially they weren’t sure if that was going to work. And after a couple weeks, they came back and said, ‘you serious about it?’ Can y’all really do that?'” Scalise recalls.
Those conversations led to a main farm bill focused on agriculture, and another measure that included the food stamps and social welfare spending that had long been part of the package. Scalise helped rally the votes to eventually get the bills over the finish line.
His main task now is working to bring a GOP health care bill to the floor before Congress leaves for August recess and essentially wraps up legislative business until after the elections.
“Leadership is finally starting to be open to bringing something to the floor,” Scalise said, giving it 50-50 odds. Recently, an RSC sponsored bill attained cosponsorship from a majority of the GOP conference, a significant threshold.
The leadership picture is volatile because there’s so much uncertainty. Boehner might return and nothing happens. If he doesn’t, “I think everybody that has leadership ambitions is looking,” one senior lawmaker says.
Though still speculative, Scalise-Roskam race would likely be closely fought.
“They’re both able guys,” says the senior GOP lawmaker, “that would be a tough call for a lot of people.”