When Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) last year asked his home-state colleague Rep. Judy Biggert (R) to negotiate a bipartisan agreement on expanded children’s health insurance, the request triggered GOP skepticism.
About a dozen House Republicans wanted to explore a deal but were reluctant to meet with Emanuel, who developed a partisan reputation as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) during the 2006 cycle. Republicans worried Emanuel would use statements made during closed-door meetings as political ammunition, said Biggert.
Even though he initiated the bipartisan talks, Emanuel withdrew to avoid jeopardizing them.
Other Democratic leaders were not eager to fill in for Emanuel. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suspected that House Republicans did not genuinely want to expand the health insurance program to 10 million children, a proposal President Bush adamantly opposed, said a Democratic aide.
Instead, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stepped in to handle the difficult negotiation.
Hoyer ultimately didn’t broker a deal, but the episode strengthened his reputation among Democratic leaders as a colleague willing to do the dirty work and bolstered his image among Republicans as an honest broker. This has thrust him into the center of delicate negotiations over intelligence surveillance legislation.
The issue is not a bread-and-butter issue among Democratic voters; it requires familiarity with a blizzard of legal details, and the Bush administration has taken a hard-line stance in the belief it would have the upper hand on a national security debate.
Nevertheless, Hoyer has made steady progress toward an agreement and has helped blunt the GOP charge that Democrats have hampered the war on terrorism by not capitulating to Bush’s demands.
And the Democratic Caucus has remained unified on a potentially divisive issue.
Hoyer’s ability to work with Republicans and security-minded conservative Democrats has added an important ingredient to the debate.
In contrast to his predecessor, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who prided himself on partisanship and his lack of Democratic friends, Hoyer has worked diligently to build bipartisan relationships.
Hoyer has also cultivated ties to Democratic groups across the political spectrum, such as the Blue Dog Coalition, whose members represent rural conservative districts and who have clashed with Democratic leaders over fiscal matters.
Hoyer’s credibility among Republicans and conservative Democrats has served as a valuable asset to the Democratic leadership and placed him in the middle of this year’s biggest policy debates.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he has done most of his negotiating on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) overhaul with Hoyer.
“I just think he’s a trustworthy, shrewd negotiator,” said Rockefeller.
Hoyer’s training as an attorney has proven useful during these meetings and has helped him grasp the bill’s legal complexities.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman of the House Intelligence panel, said that Hoyer has been vital in keeping the Democratic chairmen apprised of how Republicans would react to various proposals — crucial information when the president must sign the bill for it to become law.
Hoyer has helped bring Bush administration officials and Republican leaders closer to compromise by using the relationships he’s built with GOP leaders, such as Republican Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.).
“Hoyer is straightforward, dependable and always trying to get things done,” said Blunt, who traded offices with Hoyer when Democrats took control of the House in 2007.
Sometimes Hoyer’s patience with Republicans earns him ribbing from fellow Democrats. At a leadership meeting last year, Pelosi joked that she could not understand how Hoyer spent hours locked in a room with Republicans negotiating health insurance legislation. Pelosi said she doubted that GOP lawmakers really wanted a deal, said a Democrat who witnessed the conversation.
Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley (Iowa) gave credence to Pelosi’s suspicions by revealing the objections House Republicans raised during the talks.
Grassley, a backer of the measure, said the talks fell apart in part because House Republicans complained the bill would provide insurance to illegal immigrants. Grassley said those complaints now seem ironic because House Republicans later voted overwhelmingly for an economic stimulus package that would have given tax rebates to illegal immigrants.
The negotiations over children’s health insurance ultimately failed, but Hoyer recognizes that Republicans cannot be ignored.
“While people were frustrated that it didn’t get done, there’s a growing understanding it was not a lack of effort by Democrats in the House and Senate — it was for lack of votes,” said Hoyer in a recent interview, referring to the failure of Congress both to expand the children’s health insurance program and to redeploy troops in Iraq.
Hoyer believes, however, the political dynamic will likely change after November’s election, when Democrats expect to pick up seats in the House and Senate. Hoyer is not making any bold predictions about the 2008 elections, at least not yet. In late October of 2006, Hoyer said, “We can win 30 seats.”
Soon thereafter, Democrats won 30 seats.
Hoyer has also worked to build bridges with conservative Democrats.
Hoyer has kept close ties with conservative Democrats since his unsuccessful race for minority whip in 2001, when Blue Dogs provided an important pillar of support.
At the end of last year a senior Hoyer aide presented to the Blue Dog Coalition a proposal on how to pay for Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) relief. Blue Dog opposition threatened to scuttle tax relief.
Although Democrats ultimately relied on Republicans to pass the tax bill after Blue Dogs balked, the mini drama served as another example of Democratic leaders relying on Hoyer to handle a difficult negotiation.
“He works with some of our more conservative groups, the Blue Dogs and the New Democrats,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the DCCC, of Hoyer. “He’s very effective at working to try to build coalitions.”
Leaders may turn to Hoyer again to quell brewing Blue Dog concerns over a new AMT relief bill. Conservative Democrats recently warned they would oppose a budget agreement that failed to offset the costs of AMT relief.
After the intelligence surveillance debate is concluded, Hoyer will face an even tougher test if he pursues one of his most ambitious policy concerns: entitlement reform.
“President Bush said the entitlements have to be addressed; he’s absolutely right,” said Hoyer. “I think we absolutely have to address entitlements.”
He has embraced the idea of creating a bipartisan taskforce to begin the task and often calls for leaders to adopt the spirit of cooperation that existed between former President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) when they passed Social Security reform in the early 80s.
Hoyer will have to rely on his relationships with Republicans, conservative Democrats and another key faction — Democratic committee chairmen — to advance his goal.
Hoyer has developed trust among the chairmen from his weekly meetings with them to discuss the House agenda. After the 2006 elections, eight chairmen demonstrated their loyalty when they endorsed him over Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in the race for majority leader – a race Hoyer easily won.
Those ties will be needed to overcome deep skepticism over entitlement reform.
Asked about the establishment of a commission to examine entitlement reform, Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said: “I find that consistent with the Bush-type of thinking in terms of fighting everything that we’ve tried to do since [former President] Franklin Roosevelt; that’s my true feeling.”
Judging from his handling of children’s health insurance and FISA, Hoyer is ready to sit for hours in a room to hear Rangel’s concerns.