TIME Newsmaker Interview

Steve Scalise Says Republicans ‘Can Walk And Chew Gum At The Same Time’

Rep. Steve Scalise
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., speaks at the House Triangle during the Coal Caucus' news conference on the EPA's recently proposed greenhouse gas standards for new power plants on Sept. 26, 2013 in Washington. Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

TIME talks with Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the chairman of the influential conservative Republican Study Committee

Rep. Steve Scalise is little known outside the Capitol and his home state of Louisiana. But the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) is one of the most influential members of the House GOP. As leader of a conservative caucus that includes much of the wider House Republican conference, Scalise is also caught between two seemingly contradictory goals: moving Republicans to advance more conservative policies, and helping his party win votes in an election year.

Scalise, a three-term member from southern Louisiana, took the helm of the RSC in 2012. The group, which numbers about 175 members, has enjoyed rapid growth over the past two decades, swelling from 7% of the House GOP in 1995 to 73% in 2013, according to National Journal. Its weekly meetings draw 75 to 90 members. At the same time, its reputation as an incubator of conservative policy has been somewhat diluted by its growing membership, which now includes moderates.

In this role, Scalise—who some observers expect to seek a House leadership post whenever Speaker John Boehner retires—is forced to balance the needs of his district with his personal ambitions and those of his party. That challenge came to a head earlier this year, when Scalise supported a leadership-backed flood insurance bill instead of legislation written by former RSC chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), whom some conservatives have touted as a potential successor to Boehner.

In a lengthy interview TIME Newsmaker interview in his Capitol Hill office on May 9, Scalise sat before a glass-topped table featuring 13 corks—one from each champagne bottle popped to celebrate a bill introduced. He talked about Obamacare, the future of the House GOP, and more. Here are excerpts:

Will the House actually pass an Obamacare alternative?

I think on health care we’ve got a real chance for a vote on the floor. We need to continue to fight for repealing the president’s health care law, but we also need to put a replacement on the table. Our conference was reluctant to do anything on that front. So I said let me put together some of our smartest members on health care.

Members were meeting together for weeks and went through all the complicated issues on health care policy and finally came up with a bill. And it was a bill that was less than 200 pages, and our focus was … putting patients back in charge and lowering the cost of health care, in a way that doesn’t have mandated new taxes. So it’s a very different approach than Obamacare. I think we’re at 129 [co-sponsors]. We’ve helped advance the cause of having an alternative to the point where our leadership is now open to it.

Has Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the House will move on your bill?

He hasn’t made a formal commitment, but he is now open. In fact there are a number of working groups the leader has set up that are looking at an alternative approach to the president’s health care law. That’s a positive step forward. We’re not where we want to be, because we don’t have a vote on the floor yet, but we’re a lot closer. And I think a lot of that is because the RSC took the initiative.

Will the new Benghazi Select Committee divert your attention from your focus on Obamacare and the economy?

We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Should Rep. Jeb Hensarling be the next Speaker?

There’s all kind of speculation about who’s going to be speaker. I don’t play the speculation game. I know Jeb well. I haven’t heard him say he is running for Speaker.

Would you support him if he wanted to?

I’m focused on getting through the next few months and bringing some of the big issues forward. I think the RSC has been successful at helping move a more conservative policy through the House, and in fact some of the policies have gotten their way into law. And we’ve done it by picking smart fights and unifying Republicans—not just conservatives—around good conservative policy.

We have only two-and-a-half months before everyone goes back to their district to campaign. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be done, including bringing a health care bill to the floor, maybe a jobs bill to the floor, trying to get control over spending in the spending bills. You’ve got the appropriations bills that are going to be moving forward. Within RSC, we’ve been pushing to get those bills brought to the floor. We want a financial services bill on the floor where we can finally start putting limitations on the IRS in terms of what they are doing to attack citizens based on political views. And what they’re going to try to do to overreach on Obamacare. We only can do that if we bring those bills to the floor in the next two and a half months.

Do you think that Speaker Boehner is a conservative?

I think that our leadership is a lot more conservative than it was the last time we were in the majority. Going back to ’06, when we lost the majority, I do think that our conference has shifted further to the right in probably in a large way from those days. If you just look at the 2010 cycle, and then large class that we had, it was a class that mostly ran as conservatives. And so I think our conference has continued to become more conservative.

Would you like a more conservative leadership?

I want more conservative policy.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

TIME viral

Congressman Eats His Earwax on Live TV, Then Blames Hangnails

"My mom always told me to keep my fingers out of my mouth, and now I know why"

House Judiciary Committee meetings are already incredibly thrilling and action-packed, obviously, but last week, things got even more interesting after Florida Congressman Joe Garcia picked his ear and ate it.

Of course, the whole thing was recorded live on C-SPAN. In the video above, you can clearly see the Democrat digging in his ear, inspecting his findings, placing them into his mouth, and then going back for seconds.

He got an earful (get it?) from lots of grossed-out people, so yesterday, he took to Twitter to respond:

Okay, okay, we guess that’s a valid explanation, but he sounds so defensive. Something is just not quite right here. Either way, now he knows that what happens on C-SPAN apparently doesn’t just stay on C-SPAN.

TIME 2014 Election

Clay Aiken Wins Congressional Primary After Opponent Dies

Clay Aiken speaks to supporters during an election night watch party in Holly Springs, N.C., May 6, 2014.
Clay Aiken speaks to supporters during an election night watch party in Holly Springs, N.C., May 6, 2014. Gerry Broome—AP

The former American Idol contestant was declared victor in a Democratic congressional primary, with 40% of the vote, a day after his main competitor Keith Crisco suffered a fall and died

Former American Idol contestant Clay Aiken was declared the winner of a Democratic congressional primary in North Carolina, election officials said Tuesday, a day after his main competitor in the race died.

Keith Crisco died Monday after suffering a fall in his home; he was 71. The two had been vying for the Democratic nomination to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers. The race had been too close to call ever since the May 6 primary election, but unofficial election results posted online showed that the singer-turned-candidate won just over 40% of the vote in the three-person race—edging his late opponent by less than 400 votes.

Crisco’s campaign manager said the candidate died shortly after deciding he would concede to Aiken, the Associated Press reports.

The results will become official after they are reviewed by the state election board on May 22.

Aiken said he would pause his campaign out of respect for Crisco’s family and friends.

TIME Congress

House Committee Scrutinizes D.C. Pot Law Despite Mayor’s Refusal To Comply

Vincent Gray
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray pauses during a prayer after he delivered the State of the District address at Kelly Miller Middle School in Washington on March 11, 2014. Evan Vucci—AP

Members of Congress stressed that they were well within their rights to review the law, despite Mayor Vincent Gray's claim that D.C. was being singled out in its effort to reduce fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana

Conservatives in the House of Representatives grilled a panel of Washington D.C. law enforcement officials on Friday about a pending law that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s capital, despite Mayor Vincent Gray’s refusal to send council members to testify.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting congresswoman, testified representing the district at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing, telling lawmakers Gray believed D.C. was being singled out in its effort to enact legislation reducing fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana similar to laws passed in 18 states.

Norton said the decision to hold the hearing was “quaint,” stressing that D.C. has the ability to self-govern. But subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica (R—Fla.), who held a fake joint after his opening statements, stressed Friday’s hearing was not intended to single out the District. “We are not here to negate the District’s laws. We’re here to review its principles,” he said.

Mica expressed concern over a potential crossover between federal and local law enforcement agencies. ‘This particular change in law does effect a number, in fact 26 federal agencies in the District of Columbia that are charged the responsibility of law enforcement,” he said. He questioned which agency would be responsible for his arrest if he was caught in possession of marijuana with one foot in a U.S. National Park and the other just outside.

Norton said that the law would address racial disparities in arrests for possession of marijuana within the District. She rejected claims made by some lawmakers that the law would interfere with existing federal policies regarding public use and sale of the drug.

“D.C. residents and elected officials were stunned by two recently released studies,” Norton said citing a July 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study that found blacks were nearly eight times as likely to be arrested for possession than whites in D.C., although drug usage rates are broadly similar. “The District, like many other jurisdictions, has taken a very practical step to reduce the outsized arrest and incarceration rates of minorities.

Republican members of the subcommittee, however, called into question whether the law would really impact racial disparity. “I anticipate there will still be arrests for intent to distribute,” Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky said Friday. “Will the disparity continue?”

Assistant Chief of D.C. Metropolitan Police Peter Newsham, who also answered questions as a courtesy to the mayor, said later that the law’s full impact would be hard to predict. “Arrests for possession will likely decrease,” he said. “But whether or not enforcement action [on more serious drug crimes] will be taken is hard to say.”

Mayor Gray signed the bill in March, but because Congress has authority over the district—every law passed in D.C. is subject to their approval—there is a 60-day window of Congressional review. Most bills sail through this period with ease, .

Friday’s hearing was the third held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform examining the impact that state marijuana laws have had on federal law. Though none of the other hearings jeopardized the implementation of a jurisdiction’s policy

When asked whether or not he rolled the faux joint himself, Mica responded that his staff members did. “They have more experience,” he said.

 

TIME Congress

New Benghazi Committee: Seeking Answers Or Contributions?

House Democrats remained divided Friday over whether to participate ina new Republican-led investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

The investigation has both sides of the aisle accusing the other of trying to mislead voters. The Republicans say Democrats want to stonewall the investigation, while Democrats are angered by Republican fundraising in connection with the Benghazi probe.

Approximately 60 individuals stormed the American embassy in Benghazi on Sept. 12, 2012 and killed four people, including American Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Watch the video above for more.

TIME technology

Colorado Congressman Seizes on New Bitcoin Rules

Jared Polis
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., looks on during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014 David Zalubowski—AP

Rep. Jared Polis of Coloardo has launched a website for supporters to contribute to his campaign using the digital currency, becoming the first to do so under new federal guidelines, and has received "well over" $1,000 worth of bitcoin in less than 24 hours

Almost immediately after regulators voted Thursday to allow small political contributions in the form of bitcoin, Rep. Jared Polis launched a website for supporters to contribute to his congressional campaign using the digital currency.

Though a smattering of other politicians have experimented with bitcoin contributions, the Colorado Democrat said he’s the first to do so under the Federal Election Commission’s new guidelines.

“I think there were one or two that toyed around with [bitcoin contributions] before these rules came out,” Polis told TIME. “But under the actual permission from the Federal Election Commission, we’ve been working on this for weeks expecting that a ruling would occur, so we were able to go live within hours of the ruling.”‘

Polis said he’s raised “well over” $1,000 in bitcoin contributions in less than 24 hours since his site went live. The FEC’s current rules cap bitcoin contributions at $100, but Polis says he’s ready to accept more if the Commission decides to increase the limits. Bitcoin’s value can fluctuate wildly, but as of Friday morning, one bitcoin was worth about $450.

Polis being quick to jump on the new bitcoin rules makes sense: Before coming to Congress, he was a technology entrepreneur, founding online greeting card site BlueMountainArts.com and, later, ProFlowers.com. His background has helped him become a player on technology policy issues, especially during the heated debate over the anti-piracy Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) a couple years ago. Polis has been outspoken in calling for the government to keep its hands off bitcoin, which has caught the eye of regulators in the U.S. and abroad, in part because the currency’s anonymous and difficult-to-track nature makes it a favorite for shady “deep web” online purchases of guns, drugs and other questionable transactions. Despite those concerns, Polis said there’s plenty of good in the currency as well.

“I’ve been a critic of colleagues of mine who seek to restrict or ban the currency,” Polis said. “I believe that alternative currencies add value, help reduce the cost of remittances, provide alternatives to conventional banking systems and can reduce transaction cost. So I think they offer a lot and government should tread lightly, and consumers should be wary as well because of the risks associated with them.”

On the surface, it would seem that allowing political contributions in an anonymous cryptocurrency like bitcoin is taking a step away from campaign finance transparency at a time when many are calling for exactly the opposite. Polis, however, was quick to point out that under the FEC’s new rules, he and other politicians are required to collect the same information from donors as they would with any other contributions. Why, then, would anybody bother contributing to a campaign with bitcoin instead of dollars?

“Somebody who is accustomed to dealing in dollars would likely donate in dollars,” Polis said. “However, there are more and more people that use bitcoin as a currency for engaging in e-commerce transactions and purchasing items on the Internet. And they would be inclined to also make their political donations in bitcoins.”

TIME Congress

House Votes to Establish Select Committee on Benghazi

Rep. Trey Gowdy
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chair of the newly formed select committee to investigate the State Department's handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, speaks on his phone as he walks to the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call, Inc.

House GOP approval means Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy will lead a committee to investigate the 2012 consulate attack in Libya that killed four Americans

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to establish a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack.

The Republican-led House voted 232-186 in favor, nearly along party lines.

Speaker John Boehner said that the committee will be led by South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy. The six other Republican members will be announced soon.

The Democrats, who hold five seats, are still deciding whether to boycott the committee over concerns that it is partisan, a fear that John Boehner dismmissed.

“This doesn’t need to be, shouldn’t be, and will not be a partisan process,” he said in a statement.

The select committee will investigate the attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, on September 12, 2012. Around 60 individuals stormed the embassy and killed four persons, including the ambassador Christopher Stevens.

At first there were reports that the assault on the embassy was spontaneous, sparked by protests over an anti-Muslim film produced in the U.S. Later reports showed that the assault was an organized terrorist attack.

The Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of giving U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice politicized talking points with which to explain the event, in a bid to protect the President’s national security record ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

TIME Aviation

Airlines Push for the Right to Bury Fees in Fine Print

Travel Images
Bruce Bennett—Getty Images

Thanks to the Transparent Fares Act, those pesky taxes and fees may soon vanish... from advertisements, anyway

Airlines may soon slash ticket prices—in advertisements, that is—if they can push a bill through Congress that will allow them to bury taxes and fees in fine print.

The Transparent Fares Act would roll back a regulation that requires airlines to clearly advertise the final sale price, the Associated Press reports.

Industry advocates argue that the final price confuses flyers. If customers could see the base fair, followed by a pile on of taxes and fees, they would become better informed taxpayers. The industry estimates that taxes make up roughly a quarter of the final sales price.

The bill has bipartisan backing of 33 lawmakers according to AP and sailed through a committee vote last month.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. objected to the rule rewrite, calling it “just dishonest.”

[AP]

TIME Congress

House Republicans Question Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

David Cohen Comcast Time Warner
David Cohen, Executive Vice President, Comcast Corporation testifies during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law oversight hearing on the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 8, 2014. Carolyn Kaster—AP

Comcast's top executives endured hours of intense questioning from lawmakers worried a merger with Time Warner Cable will hurt consumers and competition, including from Republicans who might have been expected to back the deal

Some of the toughest questions at a House hearing on the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable came from an unlikely source Thursday: free-market, anti-government-intervention, Tea Party Republicans.

The biggest critics of the proposed merger since it was announced earlier this year have been left-leaning consumer rights groups, open-Internet advocates and liberal lawmakers like Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). But Thursday’s hearing of the House Judiciary Committee hearing saw a different cast of doubters.

Self-described “free market advocate” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) repeatedly questioned Comcast executive vice president David Cohen on whether the combined company would increase bills and limit choices for pay TV customers, especially in rural and Hispanic households. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) questioned Comcast’s choice last August to cut a network, RFDTV, that serves primarily rural audiences that carry programming designed to appeal specifically to rural communities. Reps. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) and Joe Garcia (R-Fla.) homed in on how the merger would affect local businesses in their districts, while Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) said he worried the merger would create “more of an in balance with already left-of-center media environment.”

And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) worried that a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would be in a position to discriminate against conservative programming, particularly Glenn Beck’s show.

But perhaps the most tense moments came courtesy of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who seemed well versed on Comcast’s cloud-streaming products and questioned the viability of existing anti-trust law to address the issues of “market access” raised by a merger. Existing law addresses “market power that distorts but it doesn’t talk about market access that promotes,” Issa said. Under existing rules, Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives can just “check the boxes” and get the merger approved, but in a world in which customers are streaming traditional cable shows via broadband and saving those shows to a “cloud,” those laws aren’t sufficient, Issa said. He called for “legislative reform to really tie in what the FCC is doing under net neutrality… and do more to make sure there’s access to the consumer.”

Farenthold also raised questions about content discrimination, but focused specifically on Spanish-language programming. “I don’t want to sound hostile to this merger—I think this government needs to stay out of the business world as much as possible,” Farenthold said. “But how do we know you won’t discriminate against other programming?”

Repeatedly pressed by Farenthold and other lawmakers about the prospect of Comcast, which also owns NBC Universal, discriminating against competing content, Cohen said such discrimination doesn’t and won’t happen.

“We do not,” he said. “Laws exist that prevent that.”

Cohen also said Comcast has an incentive to grow its subscriber base, regardless of whose content subscribers are watching.

“It’s not a zero sum game,” he said. “Just because we add one of these new networks doesn’t mean we’re not getting new customers.”

Farenthold said a combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable would serve 91% of Hispanic households in the U.S. and easily dominate the only other local cable competitor in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. Currently, Time Warner Cable currently does not carry the most popular Hispanic sports network in the country, Univision—perhaps, Farenthold suggested, because it competes directly with its own Spanish-language network, Telemundo. He also said that since Time Warner Cable is the only cable option in Corpus Christi that owns the rights to rebroadcast the Astros baseball games, “there’s not a lot of incentive” to allow the competing cable company, Grande, to access to that popular programming.

Smith and Garcia also brought up similar issues, both referencing testimony from the founder and chairman of RFDTV, a rural interest network that receives very high Nielson ratings in markets from Kentucky to New Mexico. RFDTV chairman Patrick Gottsch testified that Comcast had refused to continue to rebroadcast its channel in August last year, without explanation.

Matthew Polka, the President and CEO of the American Cable Association (ACA), which represents small local and regional cable companies, testified that the merger would have an immediate and negative impact on small, regional and rural cable operations’ ability to compete. After a merger, small, independent cable operations would have to pay more for programming, Polka said. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable will be able to use its size to “drive down” those costs and either provide customers with more channels, offer lower prices, or both, he said.

Cohen, who remained calm and collected throughout the questioning—and even repeated a few jokes he made during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing last month—got slightly flustered during Farenthold’s questioning.

“Let me—let me respond to that,” he said, repeating an argument he had made in his initial testimony that “there is no evidence that a cable company controlling 30% share of cable customers can control the market.” By hour four of the marathon hearing, Cohen’s voice was growing hoarse as he patiently answered dozens of questions, drawing on the same talking points.

“I think the big winner here is consumers,”Cohen said repeatedly. “Our primary focus will be on consumers.”

TIME Congress

Congress Subpoenas Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

The embattled secretary for Veterans Affairs has faced mounting calls for his resignation

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted Thursday to subpoena Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs after reports called the department’s hospital administration practices into question.

The House vote comes amid mounting pressure on Shinseki to retire after reports surfaced that 40 veterans died while waiting to see doctors in Arizona, and that the VA had a secret list of 200 veterans who waited more than 200 days for treatment. The American Legion and the Concerned Veterans of America, two of the nation’s largest veterans groups, as well as Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas have called for Shinseki to resign in the wake of those reports. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped short of calling for Shinseki’s resignation, but did say that “a change of leadership might be a step in the right direction.”

The Shinseki scandal is one of the few brewing in Washington that might actually claim a head or two. Unlike Republicans’ calls for Secretary of State John Kerry to resign over a controversial statement about Israel and Attorney General Eric Holder to leave for his role in the Fast and Furious arms tracking scandal, there’s a decent shot Shinseki could be forced to step down over the VA mess. And while the GOP focuses its firepower on investigations over partisan issues like Benghazi, political targeting at the IRS and the Keystone Pipeline, there are many Democrats who have expressed serious concerns about Shinseki’s leadership at the VA. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, for example has openly pondered Shinseki’s exit, and my colleague Joe Klein has been calling on Shinseki to go for more than a year.

Shinseki, though, isn’t heading for the exists any time soon. He told the Wall Street Journal this week that he would respond to an ongoing independent investigation when it issues its final report. “I’m very sensitive to the allegations,” he told the Journal. However, he may have to come up with answers sooner than that if he gets dragged before angry congressional committees.

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