Stephanie Grace: Scalise faces first test as whip

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise has been on the job as House Majority Whip for nearly a week now. So how’s he doing?

Your response to that question probably depends on how you’d answer another one: Does passing an immigration bill that Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann described as having been “gutted” by the absolutist, intransigent wing of the party count as an accomplishment?

If nothing else, Scalise’s debut as the House Republicans’ lead vote counter was a whirlwind.

On Day 1, the leadership had to pull its bill because a stubborn cadre of right-wing members, working with tea party icon U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, didn’t find it tough enough and were planning to vote no. Leaders needed their votes because most Democrats considered the bill both too limited and too draconian.

Many more Republican members, acutely sensitive to charges of congressional dysfunction, howled at the prospect of leaving for summer vacation without having attempted to deal with the border crisis. Politico, which obsessively chronicles who’s up and who’s down in Washington, pronounced the Scalise era off to an “embarrassing start.”

So Scalise and his team went back to work and set about trying to bring Bachmann, a former presidential candidate and probably the politician that tea party haters most love to hate, into the fold. By most accounts, he put his considerable people and political skills to good use, as well as his existing ties to a wing of the party with which he often allies.

It worked. By Day 2, Bachmann and her camp were on board, and flexing their muscles. “I was a ‘hell no,’ and now I can be for this bill today,” she said, according to The New York Times. “We completely gutted the bill” that House Speaker John Boehner and the leadership team had pushed just the day before.

And Scalise was collecting accolades from other prior holdouts such as La. U.S. Rep. John Fleming, who lauded his “input-driven whip operation.” Mainstream Republicans were also pleased, now that they’ll be able to go home and tell their constituents they did something, not nothing, about the growing humanitarian crisis. This is a Congress, after all, that has the lowest approval rating in recorded history. A new poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that half of registered voters think the institution is “very unproductive,” and another 24 percent “somewhat unproductive.”

That just about everyone on the Republican side joined hands in the end had at least as much to do with appearances as policy merits. The legislation includes two proposals. One bill allocates $694 million to deal with the crisis (a fraction of what President Barack Obama requested), expedites deportation of the Central American children crossing the border and bolsters the National Guard’s presence. The second bill phases out Obama’s program offering temporary legal status to unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as kids.

These bills aren’t going to become law any time soon, if ever. The Democratic-controlled Senate left for the summer without passing a bill, and Obama is unlikely to follow the GOP’s lead. And there’s the small matter that the second proposal, a key demand of the insurgent faction, conflicts with the GOP’s overall strategy of courting Latino voters.

In other words, this particular test was more about politics than governance.

Yet the whole episode raises serious questions about what will happen if the right wing digs in on a vote with serious implications — say, if it wants to put the Export-Import Bank out of business, or default on the country’s debt or shut down the government. By giving this faction what it wanted, did Scalise and company empower it, and send the message that hard-line tactics get results?

So yes, Scalise recovered from a stumbling start, passed his first test and saved face for the leadership he just joined. Good for him.

As for who’s really in control under the new order, well, that’s a question for another day.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.