Scalise’s bid for U.S. House speaker involves all the drama we expected it would

October 10, 2023 11:22 am
U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, in December 2022.

In December 2022, a month after Republicans won the U.S. House, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, right, spoke to the media alongside recently ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, at the time minority leader. Now Scalise and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio are competing to succeed McCarthy as speaker. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The betting money, literally, is on Republican Majority Leader Steve Scalise to become the next U.S. House speaker, yet it wouldn’t be normal for a leadership battle to unfold on Capitol Hill without some last-minute drama. 

As of Monday, Kevin McCarthy kept the door open for a possible bid to return to his seat, given the outbreak of war in the Middle East, but Scalise and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, remained the top contenders.

Scalise’s elevation to speaker would make him the most prominent member of Congress from Louisiana since Republican Bob Livingston chaired the House Appropriations Committee from 1995 to 1999, capping his 22-year tenure in Washington. Livingston was in line to replace Newt Gingrich as speaker until an extramarital affair came to light.

There’s no way of knowing yet what Scalise’s elevated clout will mean for the Pelican State, especially in a Washington climate where earmarks are increasingly frowned upon.

“Anytime you get one of your people in the speaker’s office, I think it’s a plus,” said political analyst Robert Collins, a Dillard University professor of public policy and urban studies. “Now, I think people should temper their expectations.”

Lowered expectations are good advice to anyone who thinks Scalise, as speaker, will make a significant departure from the politics of division that McCarthy muddled through during his nine months leading the House. Scalise emphasized the lines of demarcation between Republicans and the White House after Hamas launched its surprise attack at Israel over the weekend. 

“The Biden Administration must be held accountable for its appeasement of these Hamas terrorists, including handing over billions of dollars to them and their Iranian backers,” Scalise posted on X, repeating a false claim many Republicans have echoed since the weekend. 

The facts are that not a single cent of the $6 billion the Biden administration has agreed to provide Iran in exchange for freeing five American detainees has been spent, and Tehran can only use the money on food and medical needs, according to the White House. It could be argued the availability of the $6 billion potentially allows Iran’s leadership to spend money already in hand on attacks against Israel, but making a direct correlation is simply inaccurate.

To his credit, Scalise didn’t go as far as former President Donald Trump, who incorrectly said “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks…” in a statement over the weekend. 

It will be interesting to see how closely Scalise aligns himself with Trump, who endorsed Jordan for the speaker’s job, as the 2024 presidential election draws near. When he was in office, Trump counted Scalise among his congressional allies, and Scalise has routinely shielded the former president from blame for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol to block certification of the 2020 election results. 

But now that Trump faces criminal charges in multiple jurisdictions, Collins said some Republican Party leaders could choose to keep their distance.

“Everybody’s watching that and kind of playing their cards close to the vest, and leaving their options open, understanding that if he gets convicted in one or two of those cases, that could change everything,” he said. “…Right now, you know that nobody wants to talk bad against Trump because, obviously, he’s leading for the Republican nomination. His polling numbers are still good, so you don’t want to get in Trump’s crosshairs right now.”

So for the time being, Scalise stands to benefit from his loyalty to Trump, but he also has to differentiate himself from the far right wing of his party to win over enough support to become the next House speaker. He has to distinguish himself from the likes of Jordan and others who led the charge to oust McCarthy, but at the same time he can’t alienate too many of these extremist GOP members because he needs their votes to secure the razor-thin advantage Republicans have in the House.

Working in his favor is that Scalise is well-liked among his colleagues, something Jordan can’t claim. If enough of the House GOP delegation feels as though Scalise can work through the impasses McCarthy couldn’t — and that Jordan would only worsen — he should nail down the speakership. Yet no one should expect Scalise to make a radical departure from McCarthy philosophically, Collins said.  

“Scalise is very conservative, no question about it,” he said. “But at the same time, Scalise is an institutionalist. He’s a traditionalist. He’s not really what you would call a rabble rouser, a radical or anything like that. He is a constitutionalist. He believes in regular order.”

Put another way, most in Congress feel Scalise can take a seat at the table with the opposition, have a discussion and leave on good terms even if they disagree. On the other hand, Jordan might well turn the table over or deny it even exists. McCarthy, meanwhile, would rush to be first at the table, make all of his points and then realize no one was even in the room with him.

With the outcomes of Louisiana’s statewide primary elections Saturday largely determined, Scalise’s bid for speaker might be the most interesting race we see this week.


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Greg LaRose
Greg LaRose

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune |, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.