Washington Watch: Scalise now playing in center court

If House Republicans were looking for a majority whip who could stay persistently on message and doggedly deflect questions from pesky interviewers, they may well have found their man in U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson.

But for all his talking-points skill, Scalise, elected June 19 as whip, may be learning that the intensified glare of the spotlight that comes with the No. 3 job in the ruling House hierarchy can be harsh, and even distorting.

Scalise, 48, is offstage now, taking a break from Congress for the five-week recess that started Aug. 1 — a day later than scheduled, allowing the House to push through an immigration package.

In his first week back in Louisiana, he appeared on WDSU-TV in New Orleans for an interview with Scott Walker, who asked him what his new job would mean for the state.

“I’ve got a seat at the leadership table now,” Scalise said. “As the No. 3 person in the House, I will be meeting every day with the speaker and majority leader as we lay out the agenda for the House that day and for the week and the months ahead. So I’m going to continue to push the values that I was elected to represent, being the member from southeast Louisiana.”

Asked the same question a few days before, in an impromptu interview on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Scalise read from the same script (except he wasn’t reading from a script):

“I will now have a seat at the leadership table and be meeting with the speaker and the majority leader every day as we go over the issues we’re going to be addressing in the days and weeks ahead, and I’ll be advocating strongly for those things that I was elected in southeast Louisiana to represent.”

OK, got it.

Scalise made his first appearance on a national network news interview show July 27, four days before formally assuming the whipship and its responsibility for lining up Republican votes on the House floor. For every thrust by Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” Scalise was ready with a parry.

Wallace: “Congressman Scalise, will Congress and the president make a deal (on immigration) before you guys go home for this five-week recess?”

Scalise: “Well, Chris, we’re going to keep working until we get this problem solved. The bottom line is you’ve got a crisis going on. The president refuses to acknowledge that it’s even existing. He’s been AWOL on this from the very beginning. ...”

Wallace tried three more times, even chiding Scalise for failing to answer his question. Doing his best Tim Howard impression, Scalise refused to yield.

Wallace switched gears to a question about the possibility of President Barack Obama taking executive action on his own on immigration. If that happened, Wallace asked, “Will you consider impeaching the president?”

Scalise: “You know, this might be the first White House in history that’s trying to start the narrative of impeaching their own president. Ultimately, what we want to do is see the president follow his own laws. ...”

Wallace: “Again, on executive action to defer more deportations, what will the House do?”

Scalise: “We’ve made it clear. We’re going to put options on the table” (referring to a House-approved lawsuit against Obama). ...

Wallace: “But impeachment is off the table?”

Scalise: “Well, the White House wants to talk about impeachment, and, ironically, they’re going out and trying to fundraise off that, too. ...”

Wallace: “I’m asking you, sir.”

Scalise: “Look, the White House will do anything they can to change the topic away from the president’s failed agenda. ...”

Again, Scalise stuck with the game plan — but he discovered that his team doesn’t make the rules.

Within minutes of the interview, news outlets reported that Scalise “refused” to “take impeachment off the table.” That characterization reverberated in the political echo chamber, and by the end of the week, Scalise’s staff was contacted by a producer for a TV news magazine inviting Scalise to come on the show to discuss his call for the president’s impeachment.

Welcome to center court.

Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email is groberts@theadvocate.com. Follow him on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.