The Republican majority today introduced what it is calling the New American Congress, but on the second day of the legislative session leaders were already doing damage control as House Speaker John Boehner defended Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
Scalise, the third-highest ranked Republican in the House, is under fire for attending an event organized by alleged white supremacists in 2002. He renewed his denial today that he was racist, hoping to end to more than a week of questioning about the episode six years before he came to Congress.
“I reject bigotry of all forms,” Scalise, R-La, told reporters at a news conference at the Capitol when asked if he shared the views of the group’s leader, former Knights of the Ku Klux Klan grand wizard turned-former Louisiana state representative David Duke. “I think when you see the people that know me best, both here and especially back home, people I’ve served with, including people that I’ve been on opposite ends politically with who know the truth and know what’s in my heart, they’re the ones who can speak the best.”
House Speaker John Boehner defended Scalise, who rose through the ranks after former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor resigned last year.
“Listen, I, like Mr. Scalise, served in the state legislature. I remember my freshman term in the state legislature when I had a half of a staffer,” Boehner said. “You get asked to speak to a lot of groups and I think Mr. Scalise made it clear that he made an error in judgment, spoke to a group not clear who they actually were.”
“Now, I know this man,” Boehner added. “I work with him. I know what’s in his heart. He’s a decent, honest person who made a mistake. We’ve all made mistakes.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that Republican support for the embattled Republican “says a lot about who they are, what their values are and what the priorities of the conference should be.” Earnest would not say whether the president believes it’s appropriate for Republican leaders to stand by Scalise.
“He believes it's ultimately their decision to make,” Earnest said. “But there is no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference's priorities and values are.”
Scalise has stated that he did not realize who the group was when he accepted an invitation to speak at the event.
"One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn,” Scalise said in a written statement Dec. 30. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”
ABC News’ Mary Bruce contributed to this report