Congressional Republican leaders struggled Tuesday to stem the damage from a pair of controversies creating turmoil as they prepare to take full control of Capitol Hill.
In back-to-back moves, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) encouraged the resignation of Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who pleaded guilty last week to federal tax evasion charges, but also defended Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), even as some in the party grew anxious about the potential political fallout of his admission that he once addressed a white supremacist group before coming to Congress.
Boehner defended Scalise, saying that the Louisiana Republican “made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate.”
Earlier, he had tersely thanked Grimm for his service, saying that his resignation was “the honorable decision.”
The moves earned Boehner earned plaudits from party leaders.
“In the last 24 hours, Boehner has twice demonstrated how he is taking charge,” said Karl Rove, who was an adviser to former President George W. Bush. Rove credited Boehner with examining the Scalise and Grimm situations independently, and moving quickly. “Both incidents shows Boehner capable of leading with both caution and conviction,” he said.
In a flurry of phone calls late Monday into Tuesday, Scalise reassured his colleagues that he had been oblivious to the racist and anti-Semitic associations of the group when he addressed it in 2002 as a state legislator. In a statement, he called his appearance “a mistake I regret,” emphasizing that it was only to promote his tax-cutting agenda as a Louisiana state representative.
“As a Catholic, these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry,” he said. “Those who know me best know I have always been passionate about helping, serving, and fighting for every family that I represent. And I will continue to do so.”
In his statement, Boehner called Scalise “a man of high integrity and good character” and said he “has my full confidence as our Whip.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the incoming chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also defended Scalise.
“I was a chief of staff for a governor and I saw state representatives thinly staffed, if at all. They’re young and eager,” he said. “It sounds like something he shouldn’t have done, but if that’s all there is to it, it’s time to move on and tackle bigger, more important things.”
But cracks in support were evident elsewhere as conservative activists and more mainstream operatives fretted about the implications for the party ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.
“It’s always a step forward and two or three steps backward with this kind of stuff. We’ve got to get beyond that,” said Michael Steele, a former Maryland governor and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
One of his party’s most prominent black members, Steele suggested that Scalise might have to relinquish his leadership position just as then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) did in 2002 after making laudatory comments about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), a former segregationist.
John Weaver, a GOP consultant who advised the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said in an e-mail that Scalise “cannot serve in leadership in our party as we’re in the process of trying to show the American people we can handle the burden of governing, especially in a country so divided across all demographic lines.”
Democrats seized on the controversy, but stopped short of calling for Scalise’s ouster.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the incident “deeply troubling” and used it as a way to fault House Republicans for failing to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.
The House Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, blasted Scalise and said that “Republicans are off to a banner start for their new Congress – on the path to break their own record for least popular Congress in history.”
But a wider Democratic pile-on appeared to be thwarted in part by Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the only black Louisiana Democrat in Congress.
“I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” Richmond told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character.”
Richmond added that he wasn’t going to let partisan critics “use Steve as a scapegoat to score political points when I know him and know his family.”
Other Republicans said that Scalise’s admission was more of a media-driven affair.
“This is an absurdity,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said in an e-mail. “Twelve years ago Scalise made a mistake in judgement while giving speeches on the state budget. Among Democrats there was a dispensation for Justice Hugo Black who was an active Klan member and for [former West Virginia Sen. Robert C.] Byrd, who once led his local Klan group.”
Rob Maness, a former Louisiana GOP Senate candidate, said Scalise was suffering from “an orchestrated attack designed to distract attention away from the issues Congress should be focusing on such as fighting back against President Obama’s executive amnesty.”
Grimm’s announcement on late Monday that he will resign next Monday ended months of controversy for the lawmaker, a former FBI agent who was once considered a star GOP recruit. He left the prominent Financial Services Committee last spring after federal prosecutors unveiled a 20-count indictment, but he refused to resign and won reelection for a third term in November despite the controversy.
But after pleading guilty last week, Grimm announced plans to resign late Monday after speaking with Boehner, who urged him to resign, according to associates familiar with their telephone call.
Aides said the moves demonstrated how quickly Boehner addresses what they called “member management” issues, including past legal or ethical lapses by former Reps. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.) and outgoing Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.). Aides said Boehner’s moves exhibit a sharp contrast with Democrats, who they argued have not moved as forcefully to address members with legal or ethical issues, including former Rep. William Jefferson (R-La.) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a Boehner ally and senior member of the appropriations committee, said the latest incidents should sustain support for the speaker when he’s reelected as House leader next week.
“There are always malcontents and they may vote against Boehner. I expect a few scattered ‘no’ votes. But because Boehner has been strengthened by the gains in the election, the speaker election should mostly be an uneventful coronation,” he said.
Dan Balz contributed to this report.