Hoyer aim: Old bulls running together

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is facing one of the most daunting challenges in his 28-year career on Capitol Hill: wrestling a single piece of healthcare legislation out of a stable of some of the most fearsome old bulls in Congress.

And Hoyer, the No. 2 leader in the House, has jumped with gusto into the role of the leadership’s coordinator for the overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.

The reach of the legislation is so broad it covers three committees — Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce and Education and Labor. Those panels are led by three of the most senior and formidable members of the House, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and George Miller (D-Calif.). Also in the mix is the oldest bull of them all, deposed Energy and Commerce panel Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has also been given a role in healthcare out of deference to his five decades of work on the topic.

Enter Hoyer, master of retail politics and negotiation, to keep things calm. Some leaders in Hoyer’s position might start out trying to play the role of the matador, but Hoyer says he just wants all the bulls running together.

The way Hoyer puts it, his role isn’t to make sure that the powerful chairmen toe the leadership line, but to make sure everyone is working toward the same goal.

“I don’t think it’s so much control as coordination. And there’s a difference,” Hoyer said Thursday in an interview with editors of The Hill. “Because there’s a number of committees involved and because we want to do one bill. There’s a need for coordination.”

That has created something of a subcommittee of the committee of chairmen. Hoyer, 69, is meeting with those key chairmen regularly. He said they already had a meeting Wednesday and will meet again next week.

House leaders have set a goal — not a deadline, they insist — of having the bill passed by the August recess break, then final passage in the fall. It’s a tall order.

Even on the Democratic side, some have said passing comprehensive healthcare legislation in one fell swoop will be enormously difficult. Former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who was in Congress when President Clinton’s healthcare plan crashed soon after takeoff, suggested that Congress try to contain costs before spreading coverage to everyone.

But Hoyer says that doing it all — cost containment and universal coverage — might just be easier than a piecemeal approach. If Congress undertakes only cost containment, party liberals will be angry. But if there’s only universal coverage, centrists will balk at the costs. If the priorities of each are included, the more likely it is they’ll bend on the priorities of the other, according to Hoyer’s line of thinking.

“It’s easier to have a little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down. The broader your perspective, the more aspects you can deal with, the more likelihood there is of creating the consensus that this component needs to be done,” Hoyer explained. “I feel strongly about this. We have a broad-based caucus. There’s some perspective in our caucus that cost containment is the major objective. There’s another perspective in our caucus that inclusion of everybody is the major objective. To the extent you can deal with the priorities of each, there’s a greater likelihood of creating a consensus.”

With nearly 80 more Democrats than Republicans, Hoyer can get away with talking about a strategy that relies almost entirely on Democratic votes to get a bill passed. Even with a Republican Party that has united at times — such as on the stimulus bill — the Democratic leadership has been able to push through its priorities easily in most cases.

But Republicans have started gaining traction by hitting Democratic leaders in the same place where Democrats once hit them — ethics.

Rangel is under investigation for the way he raised money for a college center that would bear his name. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) is under fire for what she said on a wiretap.

Democratic leaders have a ready-made answer to Rangel — he requested the ethics investigation himself. Even Republicans are leery of touching the Harman situation, with the Bush administration seemingly intertwined.

But the leaders haven’t found good answers to the burgeoning questions about the hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks funneled to clients of the PMA Group after the lobbying firm’s clients funneled millions in campaign contributions to key Democratic appropriators.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has repeatedly proposed resolutions calling on the ethics committee to investigate the PMA situation. They all fail, but he keeps getting more and more Democrats, and the rank and file is getting anxious.

Asked what the Democratic leaders might do, Hoyer shifted the focus to Flake. The Arizona Republican and earmark crusader doesn’t need a resolution, he noted.

“He can write to the ethics committee; any member can,” Hoyer said. “There is a procedure set up. Mr. Flake, if he has information or a belief — I don’t know if he’s done this — can communicate directly with the ethics committee.”

Flake has said he isn’t seeking an investigation of individual members, which he said would be perceived as partisan.

Hoyer sees little danger in the gradual accumulation of allegations and ethics issues. While some attribute the Democrats’ victory to their successful exploitation of a “culture of corruption” in the final years of the Republican-led Congress, Hoyer agrees that was a component but says ethics wasn’t at the heart of the Democratic takeover of Congress. In addition, among the major pieces of legislation Democrats have pushed through have been those including more transparency for earmarks and a new independent ethics entity.

“In ’06 and ’08, the policies that were promoted by the Bush administration and supported by the Republican Congress were not working,” he said. “We are moving the country in a new direction.”

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