WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House's third-ranking Republican leader said Tuesday he regrets speaking 12 years ago to a white supremacist group and condemns the views of such groups.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said that as a state legislator in 2002, he spoke to many groups about a major tax issue.
This June 11, 2014, file photo shows Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., walking through a staircase at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
"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 statement. "It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold."
Republican leaders defended Scalise, while Democratic groups criticized him.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Scalise "made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate." Boehner said Scalise "has my full confidence as our Whip."
Scalise acknowledged at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke founded the group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized Scalise in an earlier statement on Tuesday, saying he "chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis at a white supremacist rally," and questioned why the GOP leadership had remained silent.
In an interview Monday with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and NOLA.com, Scalise said he had little staffing as a state legislator, and didn't always know details of groups he was invited to address. "I didn't know who all of these groups were, and I detest any kind of hate group," Scalise told the newspaper.
His statement Tuesday did not deal with the issue of weak staffing and sketchy knowledge of his audiences in 2002. However, Scalise, who is Catholic, said "these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry."
Scalise won a key endorsement Monday from Rep. Cedric Richmond, who will be Louisiana's only Democrat and only black in Congress when the new Congress convenes next week. Richmond told NOLA.com: "I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body." He said he has worked closely with Scalise and "I am not going to let them use Steve as a scapegoat to score political points when I know him and know his family."
The events come just days before a new Congress convenes, with Scalise poised to help shape House Republicans' agenda in his first full term as whip.
It also comes as American voters demonstrate increasing racial polarization in their political preferences, with white majorities siding overwhelmingly with Republicans in the 2014 midterms and non-whites continuing their strong support for Democrats. Many strategists say both parties must figure out how to reach beyond their respective bases.
Scalise, 49, ascended to his leadership post in June in the chain of events that followed then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise defeat in a Republican primary.
Scalise won the whip race with the solid backing of House conservatives, particularly Southerners who wanted a greater leadership voice considering the region's role in giving Republicans their largest House majority since President Herbert Hoover's administration at the start of the Great Depression.
He won his seat in a 2008 special election after helping to build a more cohesive Republican caucus in a Louisiana statehouse that historically had not operated along party lines. His district includes majority white portions of New Orleans and surrounding suburbs, reaching to coastal and bayou communities anchored by the energy and fishing industries.