Steve Scalise doesn't formally take over as majority whip until Thursday, but some House Republicans say he's already delivering on his twin campaign promises of bringing conservatives into the fold and consulting members on the front end of the policymaking process.
After winning last month's special election, the Louisiana Republican will officially succeed Kevin McCarthy as the House GOP's No. 3 at week's end — just in time for lawmakers to head home for their five-week summer recess. Thursday's expected vote on emergency funding to deal with the southern border crisis represents the first real test for Scalise and his vote-counting operation. Some on the party's right flank remain unhappy with the measure, and success is not certain until the votes are tallied. But so far, Scalise's colleagues say he is hitting the right notes.
The border bill, which carries a $659 million price tag to finance a number of security and humanitarian missions through the end of the fiscal year, is expected to pass the House of Representatives on Thursday. And, if some optimistic Republicans are correct, they may not even need Democratic votes to push them over the finish line. If that happens, they say, much of the credit should go to Scalise, who last week met with scores of members and took their input back to his leadership team to help craft a passable bill.
"They seemed genuinely interested in finding a bill that 218 Republicans could support. And that just tickles me pink," Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming said of Scalise and his new whip team. "I have felt that in the past, legislation was drafted in the bowels of leadership, brought to the floor, and they just said, 'Hold your nose.' ... I felt this was one of the first really sincere efforts that I've seen from leadership, reaching out to try first to get Republicans on board."
Lummis, who said she spent nearly six hours last week in meetings with Scalise and his lieutenants, was thrilled when she saw her concerns addressed during the unveiling of the bill at Tuesday morning's conference meeting. In fact, she took the microphone in the meeting and thanked the leadership team — Scalise, in particular — for encouraging a bottom-up approach in crafting the border bill.
"That was the sense you heard from people: 'I like this process,' " said Rep. Aaron Schock, a senior member of Scalise's whip team. "It wasn't leadership saying, 'Here's a bill; now fall in line.' It was, 'Hey, guys, what do you want to see?' And then the bill was drafted."
Schock added, "Steve promised a change in process during the whip's race. And that's exactly what happened with this bill.... And at the end of the day, the process of listening first and then drafting the legislation is one that we should look to on a continual basis."
But despite the early positive reviews, it was unclear on Tuesday afternoon just how many Republicans were on board — and how much work was left for Scalise to do.
Holed-up in a private room in the Capitol basement, clustered around a table as staffers looked on, Scalise and his whip team assessed their progress in selling a bill that carries plenty of potential land mines. But beyond its policy and political implications, shepherding the measure through to passage also represents a maiden voyage, of sorts, for Scalise, his chief deputy whip, Patrick McHenry, and their senior whip team.
That, even as there was some hesitation to acknowledge ownership of the legislation's fate.
"We don't officially become whip until Thursday," Scalise said on his way into the meeting, referring to the fact that, technically, McCarthy and his old whip team are in place until midnight Thursday. That's when McCarthy officially moves up to the office of majority leader, and Scalise takes over as whip.
"But we'll be certainly help with it," Scalise said of the border bill.
McHenry was more definite, though, when asked moments later if this legislation represents Team Scalise's first real rodeo. "Yeah, I'd say it is," said McHenry, as he opened the door to HC-8, and disappeared inside to join the closed-door strategizing.
The emergency package is scaled down from the version discussed at last week's conference meeting — the result, Republicans said, of Scalise's meetings with members who were uncomfortable with the dollar amount and timeframe initially proposed.
"Leadership has listened to us from last week, and I think the majority of my colleagues support it now," said Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan. Speaking of Scalise's baptism by fire moving into the whip's job, Walberg added: "He's got some people on his side, like Raul Labrador; that says something about the work he's done."
Indeed, leading conservatives such as Labrador and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio are supporting Scalise's efforts, removing some of the reliable roadblocks of opposition to leadership-sponsored initiatives.
Still, not everyone is sold. Some conservatives are unhappy that the package does not include language repealing President Obama's executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Without addressing this, those lawmakers warn, Republicans will be ignoring the root of the current crisis at the border.
"The thing that brought this calamity together was the DACA memorandum," said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. "And that's not even being addressed here."
What would be addressed are the Republican priorities of border security and humanitarian assistance. About two-thirds of the funds would be allocated for security purposes — deploying the National Guard, increasing the number of detention beds, and adding more temporary judges to speed up children's cases. About one-third of the money would go to the Health and Human Services Department to provide humanitarian relief.
From a policy perspective, the package is a trimmed-down version of the proposal offered last week by GOP Rep. Kay Granger of Texas and her working group. This measure will include expedited removal proceedings with more judges, tweaks to a 2008 trafficking law so children from non-contiguous countries are treated the same as those from Mexico and Canada, and repatriation efforts with Central America's Northern Triangle, Granger told reporters Tuesday.
These policy points read like a checklist of what many conservatives said they needed to see in order to approve an emergency package this week before departing for the annual August recess. Because of that, the bill appears poised to clear the lower chamber without the assistance of any Democratic votes. With 433 voting members currently in the House, 217 yeas are needed for passage. Republicans hold 234 seats, meaning that GOP leaders can lose up to 17 of their members and still approve the measure without aid from across the aisle.
But immigration hard-liners in the conference aren't going down quietly. Rep. Steve King of Iowa complained that Scalise's team has made no effort to lobby for his vote. "Of the things I've asked for, I don't see any of them," King said. "I want the money to go directly to the states. I read the bill; it doesn't do that. I want to cut off the funding to DACA. It doesn't do that — it lets the president continue."
But Scalise's decision to ignore King speaks to the shrewdness of his whipping operation: not wasting time on members who can't be convinced. By focusing on the persuadable members of his conference — and emphasizing that input will be welcomed from the conservative rank and file — the incoming whip seems to have hit the ground running and inspired a heretofore unseen optimism among his colleagues.
"It was unprecedented the way this was handled. And it just happened to coincide with Mr. Scalise taking the reins of the whip team," Lummis said. Asked whether that could be coincidental, she replied: "Not at all."