Once a month for the last six months, a group of House Republicans from the South has gathered for dinner at RT's Restaurant, an old-school Cajun joint across the river from Washington in Alexandria, Va.
There, in a dining room named for a former Republican congressman from Alabama, Herbert Leon “Sonny” Callahan, the “Southern Caucus,” as the group calls itself, has plotted its rise.
Republicans from states south of the Mason-Dixon line constitute a significant percentage of their party's House majority, and this group believes it's long past time for their influence to reflect their numbers and the reliably GOP voters they represent.
“What we're trying to do is make sure that the conference is aware, that leadership is aware, that we are the anchor to our majority,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia told the Washington Examiner.
Since Republicans won back their House majority in 2010, there has been growing angst among the party's Southern members about their lack of representation in senior leadership, including the chairmanships of the top committees.
When leadership elections were hurriedly held in the wake of outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprising loss in a GOP primary in Virginia, the group decided to exert some muscle.
In the race for House Majority Whip, many Southern Republicans supported the eventual winner, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, over Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, whose tenure as Chief Deputy Majority Whip expires at the end of July. Scalise is replacing Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who was elected to succeed Cantor.
The Louisianan appointed a Southerner to serve as his chief deputy whip: Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. The Southern Caucus believes it was influential in Scalise's elevation and has now set its sights on influencing who receives the plum committee assignments in the 114th Congress, which will convene in January.
The panels they are targeting for more representation include Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Rules, Ways and Means and Appropriations. These decisions will be made in November, about 10 days after the midterm elections, when House Republicans meet to elect their leaders for the next two years. The House GOP Steering Committee votes on panel assignments.
“We'd like to see regional balance in chairmanships, something that used to be a factor in the Steering Committee and it hasn't been for years and we'd like to get back to that,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, 56, the Alabama Republican who chairs the Southern Caucus.
It's fitting that Rogers is the driving force behind the Southern Caucus and the group retreats at RT's. The restaurant was a favorite haunt of Callahan when he served in Congress, and it was there that he hosted dinners for other Southern Republicans. Particularly after the 1994 midterm elections, when Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years and was elected speaker, Southern Republicans were a power center.
When Rogers took over host duties for the dinner last year, his goal was to reinvigorate influence the South has lost since. The group that coalesced into the Southern Caucus under his leadership was small, consisting mainly of members from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle. In recent weeks, the caucus has become more popular.
States not traditionally associated with the Deep South, like Oklahoma and Virginia, asked to join and were accepted, bringing the total membership to a dozen. Member states also include Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The caucus meets on Capitol Hill throughout the week to discuss political and legislative strategy. Discussions about how and where the caucus might act as a bloc are ongoing, with no decisions made.
“This is more in the early stages of us trying to see what’s realistic, what’s practical” Rogers said.
Even with Scalise and McHenry ascending to leadership, the three other senior posts are held by two Westerners and one Midwesterner.
Three of the top four committee chairman are divided among two Midwesterners and a Texan: Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, both of Michigan, and Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., supported Scalise for majority whip in part to add more regional balance to the leadership team and is proud to have joined the Southern Caucus. But Cole, a Steering Committee member, said factors other than geography guided his decisions on whom to support for slots on the top policy panels.
“Hopefully we’re a national party, not a Southern party,” Cole said. “It’s not as if someone who's not a good legislator and hasn’t been a team player should get a spot.”