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White House weighs in on Steve Scalise controversy

Press secretary Josh Earnest's comments marked the White House's first public response to the Steve Scalise controversy.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest argued Monday that it says a lot about Republican leaders' "priorities and values" if embattled House Majority Whip Steve Scalise remains in his leadership post in the new Congress.

Earnest's comments marked the White House's first public response to Scalise's recent admission that he spoke at a white supremacist conference in 2002 organized by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

"There's no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference's priorities and values are. Ultimately, Mr. Scalise reportedly described himself as 'David Duke without the baggage,' so it will be up to Republicans to decide what that says about their conference," Earnest told reporters at a White House briefing. Earnest did not call on Scalise to resign. Scalise, of Louisiana, is the No. 3 Republican in the House.

RELATED: Steve Scalise: Speaking at supremacist event 'a mistake I regret'

House Republicans have continued to support Scalise after the revelation that he addressed the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a group founded by Duke, as a state legislator in 2002. Duke and one of his associates, Kenny Knight, have given extensive interviews describing their relationship with Scalise from when he was a state legislator. Last week, Scalise admitted that he had attended the EURO conference, after blogger Lamar White Jr. published a report that the lawmaker had spoken there.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming criticized Scalise on Sunday over the congressman's speech, but he didn't call on Scalise to step down. Neither did House Speaker John Boehner, who last week said that Scalise has his "full confidence" as the party's whip.

“More than a decade ago, Rep. Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate,” said Boehner, adding that he expects Scalise will "continue to do great and important work for all Americans." The controversy is an unexpected dilemma for Boehner as he prepares to head a new Congress this month with an increased Republican majority and a GOP-controlled Senate.

But Democrats have put pressure on Scalise and other GOP leaders for standing by the embattled lawmaker. They have challenged Scalise's claim that he didn’t know the full extent of the group's views.

“Seriously? He didn’t know?” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said in a statement last week. “The group was named the ‘European-American Unity and Rights Organization,’ it was founded by David Duke, and he was invited by two of Duke’s longtime associates. It doesn’t get much more clear than that.”