Graves, McCarthy and Scalise 033023

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, discusses House passage of the Lower Energy Costs Act, H.R. 1, during a  March 30, 2023 press conference in the U.S. Capitol. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is to Graves' right. Beside McCarthy is House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson and chief sponsor for H.R. 1, on which Graves contributed a section.

Much ink has been spilled, both the old-school kind and its digital equivalent, on U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise’s proximity to power.

The House minority whip of the last Congress became the majority leader when Republicans took over by an oh-so-narrow margin last year. The flip put Scalise in the chamber’s official line of command, just one step below the speaker. And with Kevin McCarthy’s precarious hold on the top job — the embarrassing 15 ballots it took him to get elected, the deals he cut with the party’s kooks and conspiracy theorists to finally win their votes and the difficulty of keeping both them and more serious lawmakers on the same page — it’s fair to consider the Jefferson Parish Republican a speaker-in-waiting.

That all puts Scalise pretty much where everyone expected him to be when the new term started in January.

The plot twist is that another Louisiana representative has also emerged as a major player in McCarthy’s House: U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Baton Rouge.

It’s not that Graves wouldn’t seem up to the role. To the contrary, he’s respected enough in his home state that prominent figures — and not just fellow Republicans — considered him a smarter and more reasonable potential governor than Attorney General Jeff Landry, and begged him to run, to no avail.

It’s more that, as a longtime staffer in Congress and state government and in-the-weeds expert on issues such as water management, he has always been more about policy than the type of political positioning that is certainly evident, say, in McCarthy’s hard line on raising the debt ceiling. Even Graves' long-predicted reward for staying in Congress, a potential future transportation committee chairmanship, marks him as a policy wonk rather than a partisan warrior.

Yet if Scalise is both McCarthy’s formal partner and informal rival — several news accounts out of Washington lately have chronicled a distinct chill between the two — Graves is the one who is in the speaker’s inner circle these days.

Politico, which chronicles all manner of behind-the-scene machinations on Capitol Hill, went so far as to dub Graves McCarthy’s “wingman,” and also his “fixer.”

“The fast-talking Republican from south Louisiana has vaulted to the center of the House GOP’s biggest political dramas, from (last month’s) massive energy bill to its contentious earmarks policy to getting the party united on a debt-limit strategy. And all of his steps have the central goal of making the speaker’s life a little easier.”

“Graves has embraced the jack-of-all-trades adviser identity, helping smooth intra-party conflicts while building his clout in the House,” the story contends.

The backstory, recounted in Graves’ words, is that he volunteered to help convince reluctant members to back McCarthy during the drawn-out selection stalemate, which he correctly concluded made House Republicans look “like idiots.”

Politico also quotes Graves as being careful to support an elected leadership slate that includes his own delegation leader, rather than supplant it. The story’s description of how the House came to pass that energy bill — which is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic-led Senate — makes the situation’s potential delicacy obvious: “While Scalise officially led the House GOP’s energy bill effort, Graves has been a central part from the start.”

A more recent Politico story on debt ceiling negotiations put the two gentlemen from Louisiana at more direct odds: “McCarthy builds a kitchen Cabinet ahead of debt showdown — without his No. 2, Scalise,” the headline read.

Whether that puts them on a political collision course is a question for the future, and depends largely on how McCarthy manages what would be an unmanageable situation even for someone far more skilled.

Those rooting for Graves may also be wondering whether he picked the right horse in a possible future showdown, not just because McCarthy has shown himself to be weak-kneed — never more than when he called out former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, only to go crawling back to Mar-a-Lago — but because winning the speakership meant inviting fringe provocateurs like Marjorie Taylor Greene into the fold. That’s a stain on everyone involved.

For now, though, having two members so close to the action can’t be bad for Louisiana, and having Graves’ moderating influence on climate change in the mix — he’s a stalwart fossil fuel advocate but, unlike some Republicans, he at least advocates lowering emissions — might actually shift the energy conversation to more responsible terrain.

And whatever it may or may not mean for Scalise and the delegation more broadly, it’s good for McCarthy, who needs all the help he can get.

Email Stephanie Grace at or follow her on Twitter, @stephgracela.