Hoyer, Blunt: Friends Over All

Each week when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) deliver a colloquy on the House floor, both seem to relish the gentlemanly discussion of the schedule for upcoming legislative business.

But perhaps lost in the collegial nature of the exercise and the near endless thanking of “my good friend” is the fact that Hoyer and Blunt share what is widely acknowledged to be the best cross-party relationship of any two leaders on Capitol Hill.

Interaction between the second-in-command leaders is most often displayed publicly on the floor, but their behind-the-scenes relationship has been pivotal in recent weeks while serving as the point men for their respective leadership in negotiating a deal on federal wiretapping legislation.

“I would call it a good working relationship based upon being honest with each other, and for that reason it works,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one of the Members who was involved in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act talks.

In an environment where partisanship has virtually eroded civility and discouraged bipartisan friendships, the mutual respect between Hoyer and Blunt is remarkable.

Simply put, they genuinely like each other.

“Roy Blunt is a man of this House, he cares about this House, he cares about this country, and he cares about crafting legislation that can be agreed upon by a broad section of this House and the American people,” Hoyer said before the FISA vote Friday.

Blunt similarly praised Hoyer.

“Both the leader and his staff did a great job on this ... [they spent] days and hours and weeks trying to get to a bill that would come to the floor and have a significant vote from the majority side and virtually every Republican would be there,” Blunt said.

By most accounts the leaders have worked hard on building a relationship that both described as frank, candid and open — despite their deep partisan divide on issues and divergent voting records.

Blunt and Hoyer talk virtually every day and have lunch alone once a month in alternating offices. They have also traveled together on official trips.

“My relationship with Mr. Hoyer is very good,” Blunt said. “We’ve worked on it. We worked on a relationship both can have confidence in.”

The groundwork for the current relationship between Hoyer and Blunt was laid in early 2003, shortly after the two became Whip for their respective parties. Some believe it would have been less likely that Blunt and Hoyer would have been able to build the relationship they have now if they had to do it from their current leadership positions.

In addition to having to stay in close contact on floor scheduling matters as Whip, Blunt and Hoyer soon found they could stake out common ground on a number of issues relating to quality of life for Members — measures that would need votes from both parties in order to pass.

Most notable among these issues is the annual cost-of-living adjustment. The Member pay raise can be politically thorny, and each year there is an effort to block the automatic COLA through a procedural motion. But the two men have been able to maintain the detente between the parties in agreeing not to attack each other over the issue.

One of the biggest reasons Blunt and Hoyer seem to gel is that they are both institutionalists.

Hoyer, a one-time Congressional intern and former ranking member on the House Administration Committee, and Blunt, a former history and government teacher and professor, share a genuine interest in Congress and how it operates.

For that reason, they say, they can be fierce partisans but find ways to agree on things that have nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican — such as the Capitol Visitor Center.

“They both have a common view of the institution, what’s best for the institution,” said one Democratic source familiar with their interaction.

Their working relationship also provides a glimpse into the institution’s bygone era.

“They both have a tinge of old school” in them, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said. “They understand the workings of this institution and this government.”

Both men have lost leadership races to their party’s current top leader: Blunt lost a challenge to Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) in 2006, and Hoyer lost the race to become Democratic Whip in 2001 to now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The relationship could have unraveled in the midst of Democratic efforts to wrest control of the House from Republicans in 2006 and the GOP’s efforts to retain their majority.

After Democrats won the majority, Hoyer reached out to both Boehner and Blunt very early on. One of the things he told Blunt was that their relationship would remain the same, regardless of which party was in the majority.

The relationship has become the best avenue of communication between the leadership of each party, considering Pelosi and Boehner have very little personal communication or interaction.

Boehner and Hoyer have served together in Congress for almost two decades. They worked together on the House Administration panel and have had a strong relationship over the years. But while relations between the two men are still good, they are not what they once were since the Democratic takeover of Congress. That makes Hoyer’s dealings with Blunt all the more important.

Still, the Democratic source cautioned that “no one should over-read the relationship.”

Indeed, their friendship could be a liability for both if they are viewed within their respective caucuses as being too cozy with the opposition.

Both men have taken heat during the FISA negotiations, with Hoyer especially being skewered from the left for his participation in getting a deal.

Hoyer spoke on the House floor Friday before the FISA vote, ticking through thank-yous for colleagues and staff who helped forge the breakthrough compromise. He saved Blunt for last, framing his remarks around an apparent reference to this piece.

“Lastly, I want to thank my friend,” he said. “There’s gonna be an article written that’s going to speculate whether or not he and I hurt one another by saying the other’s his friend. I don’t think that’s the case. I said that Roy Blunt and I often disagree on substantive issues. But what we agree on very strongly is that this House needs to sit down and talk to one another and try to reach resolution on difficult issues. Not hard to reach compromise on easy issues. It’s the difficult issues.”

Earlier, Hoyer said he doesn’t get all that much flak over the relationship.

“I think Roy and I both understand that we’re both partisan leaders,” he said.

Both made a point of saying they don’t share strategy secrets but focus on what they can get done. It helps that both are viewed as honest brokers.

“His word is good,” Hoyer said, adding that Blunt “is honest about what he can and can’t do.”

Hoyer traced the breakdown in cross- party communication to when Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) became Speaker following the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. Gingrich followed Minority Leader Robert Michel (Ill.) as the top House Republican, and Michel’s leadership style was rooted in working across party lines in order to legislate.

Gingrich’s strategy was to use wedge issues to divide the parties, and Hoyer said the fact that the strategy worked is largely responsible for the current atmosphere on the Hill.

“Both parties learned the lessons of that success,” Hoyer said.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who traveled on a Congressional delegation trip with the two leaders late last year, said Blunt told him beforehand that he had a good relationship with Hoyer. But he said it wasn’t until the trip that he understood just how sincere that statement was.

“I was really surprised at how good the relationship really was,” Westmoreland said. “I really found it settling that they had that good of a relationship.”

While Westmoreland said it “represents how we all need to act,” so far there is little evidence that their ability to find ways to work beyond partisan disagreements has rubbed off on other Members.

Blunt said he tells other lawmakers to disagree with Members of the opposite party, but then learn not to question their motives.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said he has found Blunt to be a fair-minded person and that most Members understand that there has to be some channel of communication to the other side.

“Somebody has to be an adult around here, you know, to get anything done,” Hastings said. “Those two are adults.”