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Steve Scalise faces new challenges in Congress

January 4, 2019

For all of Republican Rep. Steve Scalise’s undeniable accomplishments, his life hasn’t been a steady succession of bouquets.

His mother died when he was a boy, and thus never saw his political rise from the Louisiana legislature to a powerful position in Washington. Like anyone who resides in southeastern Louisiana, Mr. Scalise saw friends and relatives devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And as the world knows best, in June 2017 the Republican second baseman was grievously wounded when a left-wing supporter of Sen. Bernard Sanders opened fire on the GOP baseball team during a practice in a Virginia suburb of Washington.

Now, the Louisiana lawmaker faces a new challenge as he and his fellow House Republicans slipped into the minority on Thursday, as the 116th Congress convened. He went from being the third most powerful man on a team that writes laws, to the second-ranking man on a team whose chief job is to obstruct.

“It’s going to be a change, of course, because we’re going to the minority and we’ll have to be careful and smart,” Mr. Scalise said days before the changeover. “But I believe [new House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi will overreach. This Democratic majority is much farther to the left than when she was speaker before, and that’s saying a lot because they were pretty liberal back then.”

He’s been getting early practice over the last couple of weeks, taking a leading role in advocating for President Trump’s border wall plans amid a government shutdown.

But he’s also kept an eye on his constituents’ concerns, pushing the National Flood Insurance Program to continue to issue and renew policies even during the government shutdown, so far to no avail.

While the minority party in the Senate has the power of the filibuster, giving it some say in what gets done, the minority party in the House has almost no tools at its disposal. The best it can usually hope for is to win moral victories and hope for dissent within the majority, which can force it to have to negotiate with the minority.

This GOP minority will also be called upon to play defense for Mr. Trump in a House where Democrats plan myriad investigations and perhaps an eventual impeachment.

“There’s clearly a part of the Democratic majority that wants to impeach President Trump at all costs and regardless of any facts,” Mr. Scalise said. “We’ve already seen how quickly things devolve into personal attacks on him.”

The congressman does have a bunk in the political “strange bedfellows” department, given his long friendship with Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, also of Louisiana. The two grew close during their time together as state lawmakers in Baton Rouge and have maintained their relationship in Washington despite their contrary convictions.

Mr. Richmond, 45, left his position as leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus last November and in December was named assistant to the majority whip in the new congress.

“We’ve already talked about that,” Mr. Scalise said. “Cedric has a new leadership position and I’m proud of him and what we’ve been able to do for Louisiana. When you don’t have direct control you can still influence legislation, and if there’s an opportunity for Cedric and I to come to an agreement, we will.”

Just where those areas may exist is unclear. For example, Mr. Scalise noted that Mr. Richmond “buys into the global warming agenda a lot more than I do,” and thus the Democrats’ professed fealty to the environmentalists’ demands could make things difficult.

And Mr. Scalise is not shy about stating his top goal: returning the GOP to the majority.

“My job will be to keep us united because 70 percent of the incoming Republican House members have never served in the minority,” he said. “You have to work hard at the job you have, and so I plan to be a lot more involved on national television and getting around the country to sell people the Republican position on things because I don’t think we did a great job of that prior to the midterms.”

His friends believe Mr. Scalise’s setbacks as much as his successes have put him in a position to handle new job well.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Pat Brister, the Republican president of St. Tammany Parish, when asked about Mr. Scalise’s political ascent. The two have been friends with Mr. Scalise since they were children in Metairie, the town that abuts New Orleans’ western edge, and got together again for lunch at a popular crawfish and oyster joint in Covington just before Christmas.

“His mother was a very dynamic, strong person,” Ms. Brister said, mentioning her passing when she and Mr. Scalise were young. “That’s a very reflective time, just as it is when you first take over a new position. We always talked about politics then and we still do.”

There was a time when Mr. Scalise’s ambitious plan to increase his travel and profile seemed unlikely. Indeed, as he lay in the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds it wasn’t a sure thing he’d return to any public life.

“I was watching on television all day and that was hard, seeing him in the stretcher,” Ms. Brister recalled.

Suffering from major blood loss and internal damage, Mr. Scalise endured multiple surgeries in the aftermath of the June 2017 attack. His triumphant return to the baseball diamond at Nationals Park one year later in the traditional congressional baseball game was a tearful moment that put one’s partisan status in perspective, he said.

It may also have contributed to his decision to not run for governor in Louisiana, a position to which Mr. Scalise has long been a rumored candidate but for which Ms. Brister doubts he will pursue for at least the foreseeable future.

Instead, Mr. Scalise said he simply enjoyed the New Orleans’ Christmas and its fried turkey his family has shared for a quarter-century now.

“I’m just incredibly thankful to be alive,” he said. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

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