WASHINGTON -- White House press secretary Josh Earnest isn't making life any easier for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who has become embroiled in controversy following reports of a speech he once gave to a conference of white supremacists.
During his Monday briefing, one day before the start of a new congressional session, Earnest said it will be up to House Republicans to decide if Scalise should keep his leadership post despite his admission that in 2002 he spoke to a Louisiana group created by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But, Earnest went on, if Republicans do keep Scalise as one of their leaders, it will reflect on their party's values at a time when the GOP is trying to reach out to voters of color.
"There's no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference's priorities and values are," Earnest said during the briefing.
"Ultimately, Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as 'David Duke without the baggage,'" he continued, referring to a comment Scalise allegedly once made to a reporter. "It will be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference."
Since news of the 2002 speech was unearthed last week, Scalise has said he didn't know who he was talking to that day and that he regrets it happened. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have publicly said they still support him. Ultimately, House Republicans will make that call on Tuesday, when they re-elect their leaders for the new Congress.
Earnest said he hadn't spoken directly with President Barack Obama to see if he thinks Scalise should step down.
A Scalise spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE, 6:30 p.m. -- A House GOP leadership aide pushed back on Earnest's comments Monday evening.
"The White House piling on Rep. Scalise is awfully short-sighted," said the aide. "As House Republican whip, Scalise will play a crucial role in determining the fate of the President’s bipartisan legislative priorities -- like trade -- over the next two years."