In an effort to quell growing criticism, a leading House Republican said Tuesday that he regretted speaking to a white supremacist group more than a decade ago.
"It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold," Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana said in a statement.
Scalise, the House majority whip, issued the statement after reports surfaced over the weekend that he spoke at a 2002 convention of the European American Unity and Rights Organization when he was a Louisiana state lawmaker.
The organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, is viewed as a hate group by civil rights organizations such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Duke founded EURO two years before Scalise addressed the group's convention.
"As a Catholic, these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry," Scalise said.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he stood behind Scalise, calling him a "man of high integrity" who made an error in judgment and acknowledged it. Scalise "has my full confidence" in his leadership position as majority whip, Boehner said.
Scalise also received votes of confidence from the No. 2 Republican in the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, who will be Louisiana's only Democrat in the new Congress. Richmond, who is black, told NOLA.com: "I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body."
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) used the news about Scalise's speech to castigate Republicans, who control the House, for not passing a comprehensive immigration bill this year and for their decision not to restore portions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court.
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said Scalise's "involvement with a group classified by the Anti-Defamation League as anti-Semitic and the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group is deeply troubling for a top Republican leader in the House."
Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's quarterly journal, wrote, "Scalise, a politician who already had national aspirations at the time of the 2002 EURO conference, certainly should have known what his dalliance with open white supremacists might cost him."