By Jeremy Alford
D.C. moves increasing clout for Jeff lawmaker
With two fellow delegation members in the process of stepping down, Congressman Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, may be uniquely positioned to not only ramp up Louisiana's influence on the Hill, but also become an inside political player himself on everything from policy to House leadership.
He has already scored a gavel as chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee and a backup hammer as vice chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee. Yet what he really needs-or may already have-is a lightsaber.
Among other moves, Scalise has taken up with a group of conservative lawmakers who refer to themselves as "The Jedi Council." The conservative group includes one-time vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and fellow Congressmen Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Tom Price of Georgia. "We meet about every week or so," Scalise said of the group, which until recently was one of Washington's best kept secrets. Even top aides aren't allowed in their meetings.
After making a playful Yoda reference in an interview with LaPolitics recently, Scalise said the Jedi Council was instrumental in crafting a deal with the leadership earlier this year to bring the budget into balance within a decade. That provision was reportedly part of the previous debt-ceiling debate, during which the Council's demands were heard personally by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who in turn agreed to a short-term increase
All of the intrigue is being trailed by speculation that the Jedi Council is trying to shape the next leadership elections. It's worth noting that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia has publicly described the Jedi budget plan as "sensible." Moreover, Cantor is co-sponsoring a September fundraiser alongside Scalise and other Louisiana congressmen for the 5th District campaign of state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia.
Bringing fresh faces to the Capitol is nothing new for Scalise. During the last election cycle, he served as the GOP's official recruiter, traveling the country in an effort to locate conservative talent and get them elected. While he no longer fills that role, he has, as a result, undeniably forged several strong coalitions in the body that are built to last.
Back home in Louisiana, Scalise is taking a hands-off approach to the 6th Congressional District, although he is in regular contact with former Congressman Jeff Landry of New Iberia, who is seriously thinking about the race. It's being left vacant by Congressman Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who is running for the U.S. Senate next year.
A Conservative Star is Born
If Congressman Scalise decides that he definitely wants a life and career in Washington, he could very well become one of Louisiana's next major power brokers. In that vein, a great deal of attention has been given lately to the fact that outgoing Congressman Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, is taking with him a seat on the Appropriations Committee. It's also been reported that Scalise and others want the job, although several sources tell LaPolitics that it's highly unlikely any Louisiana lawmakers will claim a spot on the panel. "We can survive that," said Scalise. "With all of the earmark reforms and other changes that have come about, being on Appropriations isn't the perk it used to be. But there are other ways we can build clout."
For Scalise, a watershed opportunity is just around the corner. His Republican Study Committee will be releasing an alternative health care plan sometime this month to rival President Barack Obama's controversial policy opus. In many ways it will be the GOP's first true, fleshed-out counteroffer. Crafted by a task force that includes Congressman John Fleming, R-Minden, a physician, the proposal will call for removing Obama's mandates, lowering premiums through marketplace improvements, offering policy comparisons to consumers and bankrolling a multi-billion dollar fund for states to underwrite high-risk systems, among other provisions.
Scalise said national media interest is building rapidly for the plan and that he will be playing point for most of the outreach. That could make Scalise one of the top talking heads in the nation this fall.
Already, his chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee, which has 172 members, has paid dividends for Scalise. For example, his PAC donations topped out at $194,000 during the second quarter of 2013, compared to $84,000 during the same period the previous year. Plus, the position has allowed him to show bold streaks of independence, like his recent decision to ban the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, from attending RSC meetings and attempting to influence policy discussions. It's a big boy step for a politician who has always been viewed as easy-going and likable back home.
As for whether Scalise's clout can be seen yet in Louisiana, late August was a decent gauge. On Aug. 26, he was in Baton Rouge chatting up talk radio, fielding questions from reporters, sharing coffee with locally elected officials and making headlines. Not bad for just a few hours spent in a congressional district that is not his own.