Stephanie Grace: Scalise becoming key player in House

Hale Boggs. Lindy Boggs. F. Edward Hebert. Bob Livingston. Billy Tauzin.

Steve Scalise?

Louisiana may no longer produce congressional heavy hitters the way it used to, but each generation has its up-and-comers. Of the current, largely depleted crop, the member who seems most likely to make a name is the Metairie Republican.

Granted, Scalise doesn’t have much competition for the honor. In recent years, Louisiana’s House delegation has been marked mainly by high turnover, low seniority and a lack of traction. The state’s longest serving congressman, Rodney Alexander, was elected in 2002. The majority of delegation members, Scalise included, have been in Washington for six years or less.

Others have had notable careers, but it’s been a while since anyone leveraged a Louisiana House seat into a national profile. Bobby Jindal and David Vitter, Scalise’s 1st District predecessors, used the job as a stepping-stone to higher office. Jim McCrery and Richard Baker could have assumed major chairmanships had they stayed, but each chose the more lucrative life of the lobbyist. Bill Jefferson only became a household name after the feds found that big stash of cash in his freezer.

Charles Boustany, the only colleague who’ll outrank Scalise once Alexander leaves to join the Jindal administration next month, can claim ties to House Speaker John Boehner. But it’s Scalise who is emerging as a leader of the even more conservative, and more uncompromising, wing of the party — the one that, right now, happens to be driving House politics and its staunch rejection of pretty much anything President Barack Obama wants to do.

His main vehicle is a group called the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of the self-described Houses conservatives that claims to be “organized for the purpose of advancing a conservative social and economic agenda in the House of Representatives.”

The group speaks unabashedly for the party’s base, and lists 172 members, or almost 40 percent of the entire House, as members. That number doesn’t include Boehner, but his potential rival for House primacy, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, does belong. So does budget chairman and former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Scalise is its elected head and main spokesman.

He is also a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and vice chairman of its subcommittee on energy and power. And he attends a weekly meeting with a secretive Republican group of Republicans called the “Jedi Council” — Ryan was a co-founder — that’s focused on driving the debt ceiling debate.

One interesting question is what Scalise will do with his newfound prominence.

Given the politics of his largely suburban New Orleans district, as well as the constituency he’s crafted in Congress, he can go as far right as he wants to, and he often does.

He’s made news by aggressively questioning Al Gore during a hearing on climate change. He’s bashed pro-sports leagues for even considering helping the Obama administration publicize the availability of subsidized health insurance through new exchanges that are a key part of the president’s health care law, warning that they shouldn’t be “coerced into doing their dirty work for them.”

While many GOP leaders held their tongues when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act — and a good number think the party needs to check the judgmental tone if it wants to attract younger voters — Scalise said the ruling “marks a low point in judicial activism.”

Even so, there are signs that Scalise has his limit and may be reaching it. Last month, he threw representatives of the prominent Heritage Foundation think tank out of RSC meetings after the group pushed Republicans to divide the farm bill extension into two parts, one for food stamps and one for farm subsidies — then turned around and criticized members who supported the farm-only measure.

Although he signed a letter threatening to shut down the government rather than fund Obamacare, Scalise, speaking at the Baton Rouge Press Club, recently declined to endorse a strict shutdown. And the RSC is getting ready to issue a rare alternative health care policy proposal, rather than just a blanket condemnation of ideas that, ironically, were first developed by the Heritage Foundation and later adopted by Obama. None of this should come as a surprise to those who watched his previous career as a state lawmaker. Scalise was known in Baton Rouge for championing hot-button conservative issues, but also for collaborating across ideological lines on measures such as legislation creating the state’s film tax credits. He has a knack for both.

Given that the GOP is likely to control Congress for the foreseeable future, which instinct wins out will have ramifications for Scalise’s own career, and beyond.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.