By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Louisiana conservative seeking to be the No.3 Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives has the potential to be a bridge between the party's leadership and Tea Party rebels.
Representative Steve Scalise is a staunch conservative who, in assessing President Obama's first 100 days in office in 2009, gave him a grade he considers far worse than an "F" for failure - an "L" for Liberal.
He is well-respected and well-liked by most members of his party, a prerequisite for the job of majority whip, whose job it is to drum up the Republican votes needed to pass bills.
The job is likely to come open this week. The current whip, Kevin McCarthy, is a strong favorite to win the No.2 House leadership position in June 19 elections to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Cantor is stepping down after a stunning loss last Tuesday to a Tea Party upstart in Virginia in a primary election ahead of the November midterm elections. That defeat was a reminder for Republicans that the Tea Party movement for fiscal conservatism and small government still has the power to shake them up. The resulting leadership scramble has also given the party's right wing a chance to push for one of their own.
Scalise, 48, would seem to fill the bill, although some Tea Partiers say he is not conservative enough.
He chairs the largest bloc in the U.S. Congress – the Republican Study Committee, a group of over 170 lawmakers that Scalise has described as the party's "conservative rudder" in the House. It often weighs in on budget and deficit issues.
The RSC was founded in 1973 to serve as an ideological rallying point for conservatives. But its numbers have grown to over two-thirds of the 233 Republicans now in the House, including most of the lawmakers who swept into Congress in the Tea Party surge of 2010.
In fact with more Republicans identifying themselves as conservatives, the RSC has become so large that some lawmakers say it may have lost effectiveness - notably Representative Raul Labrador, a Tea Partier who said on Friday he was challenging McCarthy for majority leader. Labrador has been quoted as calling the RSC a "debate society."
Last year, a group of more hardline House conservatives, including Labrador, began meeting in what is called the House Liberty Caucus. Representative Thomas Massie, part of that group, says they number about 30 - and Scalise is not among them.
Massie said he doubts Scalise is hard-core enough to be a real spokesman for conservatives when dealing with Boehner and other members of the more moderate, "establishment" leadership.
"He (Scalise) would be a good whip, but he would not satisfy the condition of having a conservative at the leadership table, who can relate the concerns of conservatives to the leadership team," Massie said in an interview.
Scalise was not available for comment over the weekend.
TWO OTHER CANDIDATES
Two other candidates are vying for the whip job in the secret ballot election to be held on Thursday: Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois, who as the current chief deputy whip is considered an "establishment" Republican, and Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, a conservative elected in 2010.
Stutzman's entry into the race raises the possibility of a split conservative vote, making it easier for Roskam.
The new leadership team's ability to bring together the Republicans' often warring factions will help determine whether the country is in for more of the budget uncertainty and government shutdowns that in recent years made business interests uneasy and put Wall Street's nerves on edge.
Representative Phil Roe, a conservative who backs Scalise for whip, said Scalise's experience running the large, "big tent" RSC group proved he could serve as a bridge between Boehner and less predictable grass-roots conservatives who think the leadership compromises too much with Democrats.
"I absolutely believe he can. I've seen him do it," Roe said in an interview.
Roe noted that Scalise has pressed the House leadership to go beyond merely calling for a repeal of Obamacare and to have the House vote on an alternative to the president's healthcare reform law, such as the one sponsored by Roe and other conservatives. Earlier this year Cantor promised to have such a vote but so far has not delivered.
Scalise allies said he also demonstrated conservative bona fides by seeking to beat Representative Paul Ryan’s 10-year balanced budget plan with a four-year path to balance in the Republican Study Committee's "Back to Basics Budget” this year. But it did not pass the House.
Coming from Louisiana is considered a plus for Scalise within the Republican caucus, many of whose members are southerners.
“I think I’ve made it pretty clear that we need somebody from a southern state” in at least one slot in the leadership race, said Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.
But his critics note that Scalise, who represents the New Orleans area, backed a flood insurance bill earlier this year that was criticized by fiscal conservatives. Scalise said the bill was needed to bring down insurance rate hikes for homeowners, but critics said it would undo reforms to the flood insurance program and taxpayers would end up paying the tab.
In a contest where image may play as much a role as action, some Republicans said Stutzman would be a better choice as whip because he is from the large group elected in the 2010 Tea Party surge. Scalise was elected to Congress in 2008.
“It’s not just an issue of whether Marlin (Stutzman) is more conservative, it’s representation of the class of 2010,” Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who also was elected to Congress that year, said in an interview.
Scalise may also be seen by some conservatives as too friendly with current Republican leadership. Mulvaney said that in the 2012 race for Republican Study Committee chair, Boehner and other Republican leaders made clear they preferred Scalise over Tom Graves, who was seen as more independent of leadership.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder, David Morgan and Julia Edwards; Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)