Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise left the Capitol Thursday evening and headed over to second base at Nationals Park to help kick off the 57th Congressional Charity Baseball Game. It's a big deal for the House majority whip in part because he spent last year's game in intensive care at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Scalise was one of six people who were wounded on June 14, 2017, when a gunman attacked the suburban Virginia baseball field where his team of GOP players was practicing. Scalise was standing at second base when a bullet struck him in the hip and moved through his body, damaging organs and breaking bones along the way.
One year later, Scalise is back in Congress experiencing one of the most powerful moments in his political career. The traumatic injury and grueling recovery are not yet fully behind him, but his experiences in these past 12 months have left an indelible mark on his outlook and his work in Congress — changes that could help elevate him to one of the most powerful roles in Washington.
"My relationship with members I think is deeper because people really were there for me when I was going through the tough time," Scalise said in an interview in his office in the Capitol earlier this week. "So just understanding what it is that members want to see when we all come up here and get elected to these important jobs because we want to change things and do things. What is it they want to achieve and how can I better help them. Having that deeper relationship personally also does help me be more effective in a leadership role like this."
Throughout his recovery, Scalise said, Democrats, Republicans and President Trump called and texted him constantly. It gave him a chance to get to know people in a way that he'd never done before. Over time Scalise got to know a lot more about what makes his colleagues tick — and what makes them vote.
Scalise joked about the way the trauma and his recovery have given him a boost in negotiations, but members don't deny the change.
"You know, there are a couple of bills that I whipped while I was in the hospital," Scalise said. "I found when you're calling somebody from the hospital they're quicker to say yes to support the bill. So maybe on tough votes I need to just rent a room out at a hospital and make the calls there."
Finding power from tragedy is an awkward thing for most lawmakers to discuss. Several of Scalise's colleagues avoided talking about the two things in a single sentence. Those who would were quick to say they didn't want to imply he was taking advantage of his pain.
But there is no denying that Scalise's relationships with members have changed. Florida Republican Dennis Ross was among those who said Scalise returned to his job with a far more powerful voice.
"His mere presence demands that people listen to him and talk to him," Ross said. "That's a tremendous gift. A very hard way to get that gift, but it's a tremendous gift. And in a sense that's been very beneficial because members will talk to him."
His dramatic story and the shared shock of dealing with the aftermath of the attack have made Scalise a compelling figure within Republican circles. On the day he returned to Congress he was met with a nearly four-minute standing ovation. He made his way into the House chamber with the help of a set of crutches and delivered a heartfelt, emotional speech with an iconic line that has followed him since.
"I'm definitely a living example that miracles really do happen," he said.
He was far from fully healed at the time and would still need several surgeries. But Scalise said he was ready to get back to work.
"I really missed the job when I was away," Scalise told NPR. "In a business like this everyone is competitive. Easily there could have been a time when somebody said, 'Hey, Scalise is in the hospital. Let's somebody take his job.' "
He didn't just want to ease back into a quieter version of his life, either. Scalise said he was determined to dive back into his job as the majority whip — the chief Republican vote counter in the House. It's a demanding job full of arm-twisting and cajoling to get legislation passed.
He also found himself thrust into the national spotlight as a champion of Trump's fervent base. The Louisiana Republican has remained a staunch advocate for gun rights and has drawn himself closer than ever to President Trump on policies like immigration and taxes.
It is a relationship Trump memorialized in his State of the Union address earlier this year, dubbing Scalise with a signature nickname that he wears with pride.
"With us tonight is one of the toughest people ever to serve in this House," Trump said. "A guy who took a bullet, almost died and was back to work 3 1/2 months later. The Legend from Louisiana, Congressman Steve Scalise."
This new elevation comes at a chaotic time for House Republicans. Speaker Paul Ryan is set to step down, leaving a void in GOP leadership. Scalise has endorsed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy for the job, but some in the party are still agitating for Scalise to take the lead.
He is popular with his colleagues and is a regular fixture on cable news and in interviews embracing Trump and his agenda.
"I think its real important for us to have a close relationship with President Trump and to work with him to achieve the things we both want to see happen to get this country back on track," Scalise said. "He called me multiple times when I was in the hospital, just checking in on me. He didn't want to talk about anything except to say, 'Steve, how are you doing?' We talked about a lot of stuff after that. He and I have a very strong relationship. We've worked very closely on big stuff."
And colleagues like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a teammate who tended to Scalise's wounds on the baseball field last year, say the story of his recovery is inextricable from his political story.
"I think this is so much ingrained into his, I don't know, persona I guess," Flake said. "He doesn't have to talk about it that much. When he stands up in a room people see it."