With the House once again preoccupied by Speaker John A. Boehner’s future, the snowy hoopla of opening day looks to have been the final event that sealed Steve Scalise’s fate: He is going to survive as majority whip for the indefinite future.
Now the question becomes what alternate moves, if any, the Louisianan and his GOP colleagues make in hopes of improving their lousy standing with African-Americans.
There are many reasons Republicans have tacitly decided to stick with the guy they installed as their No. 3 leader less than seven months ago — despite last month’s revelation that he once addressed a white supremacist group affiliated with David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and perennial GOP candidate.
The incident happened a dozen years ago, when Scalise was a state legislator six years away from getting elected to Congress. His remarks were all about Louisiana tax policy and did not touch on race. He’s said he nonetheless regrets going before the group and has condemned its views. His state’s most prominent black politician, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, was among the first of the Democrats to comment on the story — and he came to Scalise’s defense, declaring his colleague doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body.”
Finally, the news broke while members were scattered across the country for the holidays, making it impossible to assess the level of Republican criticism or anxiety. And by the time they started returning to the Hill this week, the GOP leadership had circled the wagons forcefully around Scalise and Boehner was focused instead on marshaling support for himself.
Whether Scalise can totally shed the taint from the incident won’t be known for several months. That will be determined in large part by potential congressional candidates and big-money donors, when they start either accepting or spurning his entreaties in the opening rounds of the 2016 campaign. But, almost as much, his long-term future as a GOP power player will be settled by the Democrats, when they decide for how long and how intently they are going to wield the incident as a weapon against the Republicans.
And it’s on that front that Republicans have a singular opportunity not only to put the Scalise contretemps to rest, but also to enhance their appeal to black voters — all while making some substantial and overdue alterations to domestic policy.
The vehicle for this potential double reversal of fortune is bipartisan legislation, in limbo now for almost a year, to revamp the Voting Rights Act.
If the majority whip were to announce that securing enactment of such a bill had been added to the roster of top GOP legislative priorities — and that he would personally serve as chief shepherd of the necessary deal-making — that would be a supremely significant step, for reasons both symbolic and substantive.
For Scalise, it would be a way to atone for his bad judgment in a way that’s tangible, not just rhetorical. For all Republicans, it would be evidence they are willing to use their control of Congress to address both civil rights and flaws in the electoral process, two issues they have essentially been ignoring for years.
For the predictors of eternal gridlock, not to mention the Democrats, it would be a shocking refutation of their assumptions. And for the country, it would be close to a guarantee the 114th Congress would have at least one accomplishment that would linger in memory.
For a party that hasn’t received more than 11 percent of the black vote in any of the past nine elections, the political imperative for the GOP to do something proactive seems obvious. Legislation to address other ways in which African-Americans feel marginalized — combating racial profiling, disproportionate rates of imprisonment and police brutality, for example — look like a bridge too far. But the starter dough is already in hand for a deal on voting rights.
The existing law, a centerpiece of the Great Society and one of the signature statutes of American history, was written to ensure all citizens had equivalent access to the voting booth, regardless of race; that they could exercise their franchise without fear, and that the rules could not be manipulated to dilute the electoral strength of any ethnic minority.
And the law is already in the news this year for two reasons: It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary in August and its germination is the subject of this winter’s critically acclaimed, but historically suspect, movie “Selma.”
The drive for a rewrite was spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2013 striking down a central section of the law: The requirement that all or parts of 15 states, concentrated in the South, obtain advance federal approval for any changes in their election rules.
The justices said the statute was relying on outdated data about racial discrimination, and seven months later a solution was offered by the top Democrats on the Judiciary committees, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, along with the longest serving Republican on House Judiciary, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.
They proposed a new formula that would effectively limit the “preclearance” system to just Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. (As such, a GOP embrace of the bill could fairly be portrayed as evidence that Scalise, and the 17 percent of House Republicans who hail from just those four states, are willing to put national interest — and their party’s political imperative — ahead of parochial protections.)
While most members of the Congressional Black Caucus are on board, Hispanic members and some civil rights organizations say the new formula is too narrow. But, as much as anything, the bill foundered in 2014 because the most powerful lawmaker working on the effort, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, quit Congress after his GOP primary upset loss in Virginia. (And, of course, it was Scalise who entered the leadership’s top tier as a result of Cantor leaving.)
“As the new Congress begins, nothing discredits Republican claims of outreach and bringing people together more than their decision to keep Steve Scalise at the top tier of the elected leadership of their caucus,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the national chairwoman of the Democratic Party, said in a statement closely echoed by the White House.
Since actions speak louder than words, nothing would neutralize that line of attack more completely than if majorities of the new House and Senate voted to buttress the fundamental right of all Americans to vote in their next campaigns.