WASHINGTON – House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has a message for those who expected him to change since a bullet fired by a would-be assassin shattered his body and left him at the edge of death: He might be a different man – but not in the ways his political foes might wish.
The Louisiana Republican said in a Wednesday interview with the Washington Post that he is committed to continuing in office and maintaining his leadership role, working as hard as ever to advance the GOP agenda even as he continues an arduous rehabilitation.
And, days after another mass shooting thrust gun violence back into the national spotlight, Scalise said he remains a strong proponent of gun rights. Those who hoped that his June 14 shooting, at a Republican lawmakers' practice for a charity baseball game, would prompt a conversion on the issue are sorely mistaken, he said.
"That usually comes from people on the far left who already want gun control on their own, and they want somehow some transformational event to happen that's going to convert somebody's political viewpoints that are based in decades of understanding and studying the history of our country," Scalise said.
"Anybody that wants to say, OK, somehow the idea of taking away people's guns is an answer to this . . . they don't understand, number one, what the Second Amendment stands for and why it's in our Bill of Rights," he added.
Scalise has made a careful public reemergence over the past week, making a surprise return to Capitol Hill last Thursday, walking onto the House floor with the aid of crutches to a raucous welcome marked by universal applause and plenty of tears.
In remarks to colleagues that day and in subsequent interviews with CBS' 60 Minutes and Politico, he recounted harrowing details from the day when James T. Hodgkinson, an unemployed 66-year-old Illinois man who had expressed public malice toward Republicans, opened fire at an Alexandria, Virginia, ballpark.
Scalise was struck in the hip, prompting immense blood loss that would have claimed his life if not for an emergency tourniquet applied by fellow lawmaker and retired combat surgeon Brad Wenstrup (R., Ohio), a swift helicopter evacuation to MedStar Washington Hospital Center and the heroic efforts of trauma surgeons there.
In his office Wednesday morning, Scalise sat amid reminders of that day – the motorized scooter he now relies on, a personalized Army jacket gifted by Wenstrup, a painting of his colleagues kneeling in prayer for his safety – and reflected on his rehabilitation and his life ahead while sipping a cup of chicory coffee.
During the nearly 40-minute interview, he expanded on a theme of his speech last week – the bottomless font of generosity and goodwill he received from the public after the shooting. Particularly in the past six weeks, as he focused more and more on his return to the Capitol, Scalise said that he came to realize a key problem for the institution was the way members themselves disparage it.
"If you had a job and every day you're going back home and telling all your friends how horrible your job is and how horrible your employer is, after a while they're going to start believing you," he said. "And then at some point they're going to start questioning you and say: Why, if it's so bad, are you doing it?"
He said he wants to spend his next few months delivering a message to his colleagues: "Hold your head up a little bit more, have some self-respect for what we're a part of. I mean, there are not many people that get to serve in the United States House of Representatives. I fought really hard to win a seat in Congress, and everybody else did, too."
While he was away, Congress continued to stumble along. A bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a long-cherished GOP goal, fell apart in the Senate. A sweeping effort to rewrite the tax code faces major obstacles. No major legislation has passed, and the institution's approval rating has dropped to near-historic lows.
Yet Scalise found through his near-death experience that people may despise what they see from today's dysfunction but care about the institution. The thoughts and prayers of both strangers and world leaders convinced him that the public cares, and if more lawmakers themselves realized that, they would reach more fruitful outcomes.
"If we care about it more, then I think that will reflect better upon the work we do and on how people view Congress as a whole," he said.
Scalise made clear, however, that there is a difference between treating colleagues on the opposite side of the political spectrum with decency and respect, and reaching agreement with them on divisive issues.
He said he remained as committed as ever to repealing the Affordable Care Act, even after some its supporters highlighted the expensive care he received as a reason to preserve it. And when asked about Sunday's shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and hundreds injured, he showed little interest in an immediate conversation about gun restrictions.
"I think it's a shame that the day somebody hears about a shooting, the first thing they think about is, how can I go promote my gun control agenda, as opposed to saying, how do I go pray and help the families that are suffering?" he said.
On Tuesday and again in the interview, Scalise called on Americans to donate blood, recalling how massive transfusions saved his own life and probably helped saved the lives of Las Vegas victims. He said it was premature to consider a legislative response to Sunday's tragedy, including a potential ban on the accessories the shooter might have used to mimic machine-gun fire.
"Let's go and help the grieving families and those that are fighting for their lives before we start rushing to any kind of conclusion," he said. "Let's actually let the facts come out, and that's where I am."
Scalise says he never questioned whether he would ultimately return to his job as the House GOP's vote counter, a physically and emotionally demanding post that requires being in tune with the needs and concerns of more than 200 legislators across the geographic and ideological spectrum. Never did House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), or any other colleague suggest that he might step aide, he said, nor did the notion cross his own mind.
And while his brush with tragedy has clearly raised his public profile and elevated his colleagues' esteem, Scalise also said he has not dwelled on the effect the shooting might have on his political trajectory – sticking to a personal philosophy he has maintained since serving as a state legislator.
"A bunch of people in my freshman class wanted to be governor. None of them became governor," he said. "If you're trying to get somewhere else, the best thing to do is just do your job really well. And then if opportunities open up down the road, you'll have a better chance of getting there."
He is now out of the inpatient rehabilitation facility where he spent much of the past two months since he left the hospital. Over the weekend, he made his first trip to his home state since the shooting, attending a Louisiana State University football game as an honored guest. But Scalise remains faced with significant physical challenges: His left foot, in particular, has yet to respond to therapy, and he is now spending at least three hours a week trying to regain his mobility.
"They feel very confident I'll be able to walk again on my own without the aid of crutches," he said. "Whether or not I can run is an open question right now. Some of it depends on whether or not my left foot comes back. And so I still say prayers that it does. But that's something I've got to find out in the future, and if it doesn't, I'll just find other things to do."
Having to rely on crutches and a scooter has been a undeniable setback for a backslapping lawmaker accustomed to roaming the House floor, buttonholing colleagues and winning votes face to face.