Republican Steve Scalise is seen as a fighter, but becoming House speaker might require a brawl

Oct 11, 2023, 9:06 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — With his walker positioned on the mound, Rep. Steve Scalise threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Washington Nationals ballpark, a breathtaking comeback for the Republican congressman who just months earlier was fighting for his life after a gunman had opened fire on lawmakers at their own charity baseball game practice.

An “American hero,” is how Republican colleagues describe Scalise after the 2017 shooting and on Wednesday, a narrow majority of them nominated him as their next House speaker following the unprecedented ouster of the former speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

Scalise, 58, and recently diagnosed with blood cancer, spent the rest of the day holed up in the stately Speaker’s office at the Capitol, vigorously working to secure the support he will need from his detractors to lead the divided Republican majority ahead of a full House vote to take the gavel.

“As we’ve all witnessed, he is a fighter,” said Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky. “He has proven against all odds he can get the job done and come back from adversity.”

An affable Louisianan, Scalise was first elected to Congress in 2008, after more than a decade in the state legislature, and swiftly rose through the ranks in Washington.

Early on he positioned himself as a conservative, part of a new generation of younger Republicans who came of political age during the Ronald Reagan era, many intent on changing Washington.

Once Republicans took majority control in the 2010 election “tea party” wave of hardline lawmakers to Congress, Scalise soon became part of the House leadership team alongside McCarthy and others under then-Speaker John Boehner.

An early rivalry developed between Scalise and McCarthy that punctuated their rise, and continues to this day as the Louisianan is about to take the gavel after the Californian was pushed out.

Scalise has long drawn his support from the Southern states, and he fell outside of the triumvirate of McCarthy, Rep. Eric Cantor and eventual Speaker Paul Ryan, who called themselves the “Young Guns” and penned a book about their vision for the Republican Party in Congress.

When a right-wing challenger toppled Cantor in a GOP primary election for his congressional seat in Virginia in summer of 2014, it also set off a domino effect in the House leadership ladder.

McCarthy rose to become Majority Leader, and Scalise the Majority Whip.

One early morning three years later, Scalise and other Republican lawmakers gathered at a grassy park in the suburbs outside of Washington to practice for the upcoming congressional baseball game.

A rifleman with grievances over then-President Donald Trump started shooting, gravely wounding Scalise, and hitting several people and U.S. Capitol Police, who also fired back. Lawmakers dove for cover.

During an interview later on C-SPAN, Scalise described asking the medic as he was being airlifted to the hospital to call his wife back home in Louisiana

“I just felt like things were fading away,” Scalise recalled.

No one picked up the phone but his wife saved the voice mail message he left her that day, and listening back to it, he said, is tough.

But Scalise said: “It’s hard to focus on the negative when I know how close I was to not making it, and to know that I’m here alive and I get to do all the things I love doing,”

When Scalise returned to the House three months later he was cheered with a standing ovation.

“You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people’s House,” he said at the time to a chamber packed with lawmakers.

Scalise went on to champion Second Amendment rights, despite a series of mass shootings in the U.S.

If the Capitol Police officers on his security detail had not been there with guns to counter the shooter, “then there would have been nobody to take him down,” Scalise said around the first anniversary of the shooting.

He said the shooting “deepened my appreciation for the Second Amendment because it was people with guns who saved my life and every other member out there.”

A father of two, Scalise recently returned to work after receiving treatment for blood cancer, raising questions from colleagues about his health and ability to lead.

The speaker’s job can be brutal and thankless, with busy travel across the country raising campaign cash and recruiting candidates for elections.

Behind closed doors Wednesday, Scalise’s wife, Jennifer, joined the private meeting, sending a message that her husband’s blood cancer would not slow him down.

“If there was any outside chance that this was going to be detrimental to his health, or counterproductive to his well being, she would have put her foot down,” Womack said. “She’s all in.”

But that wasn’t enough for some holdouts who supported rival Rep. Jim Jordan, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee who had Trump’s backing to become speaker, and are now denying Scalise the votes for the gavel.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she would continue supporting Jordan because she wants to see Scalise “defeat cancer more than sacrifice his health” in a demanding job.

Others dredged up his past. Scalise had apologized in 2014 after he was found to have addressed a white supremacist group in 2002 founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise said he didn’t know of the group’s racial views.

It’s not the first time a leader has risen on the heels of another’s downfall.

When Boehner abruptly retired rather than face the threat of ouster, McCarthy reached for the gavel only to step aside for Ryan when it was clear he did not have support.

After Ryan decided to retire in 2018 as it became more difficult to lead during the Trump era, the political rivalry between Scalise and McCarthy sparked again.

Scalise did not openly challenge McCarthy at the time as Republicans fell into the minority, but positioned himself as a fallback in case the votes weren’t there.

When McCarthy seized the gavel in January once Republicans regained the majority, Scalise won the No. 2 job as Majority Leader.

Late Wednesday, the speaker’s office became a revolving door as holdout Republican lawmakers met with Scalise bringing their concerns, complaints and demands.

The Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of repeated House floor votes to elect the speaker. Republicans hold just a slim 221-212 majority, and almost all of them will need to support Scalise over the objections of Democrats.

“We’re having continued conversations,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the Freedom Caucus.

“As I said earlier, I was not happy with the way things unfolded,” said Roy. “I thought we should figure this out behind closed doors, as a conference before we started moving towards the floor.”

___ Associated Press writers Stephen Groves and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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Republican Steve Scalise is seen as a fighter, but becoming House speaker might require a brawl