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Senators: Scalise Made 'Grave Mistake' Speaking to White Supremacist Group

Two senators criticized Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise's (R) '02 speech to a white supremacist group on Sunday, but neither called for him to step down.

Two senators criticized Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise's (R) 2002 speech to a white supremacist group on Sunday, but neither called for the incoming House Majority Whip to step down.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called the speech a "grave mistake" Sunday, but added, "I think Cedric Richmond makes the point ... He's a Democrat, African-American. He said Steve Scalise doesn't have a racist bone in his body."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Republican leaders should respond to the controversy with "actions, not just words." She also called on the GOP to fast track Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch's confirmation, pass a voting rights bill and put immigration reform legislation on the president's desk.

"I think it's something the Republican leadership is going to have to decide and live with the consequences. It was clearly an inappropriate place to be ... You say you want to disown it, you say you want to move on civil rights, then do it." If confirmed, Lynch would be the first African-American woman to hold the nation's top law enforcement job, and the second woman ever, following Janet Reno who held the position from 1993 to 2001 in the Clinton administration.

Barrasso signaled Lynch's nomination is likely to become a proxy fight over immigration. "That's going to come up in the questioning ... the president's actions on amnesty. Is it legal? Is it not legal? Is she the people's attorney? Is she going to be a presidential protector? ... These hearings are going to be very consequential."

Republicans return to Washington this week as a resurgent party, with control of the Senate and their largest House majority in more than eighty years. After years of battling with the Obama White House, party leaders are eager to prove they can govern. But, they say, that does not mean abandoning their promise to chip away at the president's signature legislative achievement, the health care law.

Barrasso promised that Republicans still intend to put a full health care repeal on the president's desk, even as he also acknowledged it will not become law. "There will be a repeal vote. The president in the White House will veto that," Barrasso said. Republicans will also hold votes on changes to the law such as eliminating the tax on medical devices, getting rid of the employer mandate, and changing the law's definition of a full-time work week from 30 hours to 40.

But the first order of business for the new Republican majority will be jump-starting construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

"The president is going to see the Keystone XL Pipeline on his desk and it is going to be a bellwether decision," Barrasso said. "This is a good infrastructure project supported widely throughout the United States. He's going to have to decide between jobs and the extreme supporters of not having the pipeline." Klobuchar, who voted against the pipeline last year, said "I believe this project has merit, but I still don't think that Congress should be in the business of deciding where a pipeline is located. I think the president needs to make a decision. A lot of us are frustrated that it has taken this long."

So, will leaders in Washington move past political gridlock to bipartisan cooperation? Americans may be skeptical, but both Barrasso and Klobuchar were optimistic on Sunday. Barrasso promised Republicans are ready to deliver "effective, efficient and accountable government." And Klobuchar argued the improving economy means "we can finally govern from a position of opportunity and not crisis."

— Sarah Blackwill