Hoyer's Focus

Amid extraordinarily busy legislative maneuverings designed to close the 110th Congress, House Majority Leader Hoyer had a simple and upbeat message this week when he talked politics and his post-election hopes with a half-dozen reporters in his office.

In a presidential contest in which "change is obviously the issue," he said, Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois "has been the change agent" and most voters don't believe that Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona stands for change.

With that optimism, Hoyer is looking forward to January, when he expects that Democrats will take control of Washington. "I don't think that it will be a very liberal administration. ... Barack Obama is a very mainstream politician, though he might not like the word 'politician,'" he said.

The prospective president's consensus-seeking approach will encourage the Democrats' moderate and progressive wings to "understand that success will be achieved by working together," he added.

Hoyer cautioned that congressional Democrats won't necessarily agree with Obama on everything. But he praised Obama's well-run campaign, and suggested that the party has learned its lessons from the legislative collapse at the start of the Clinton administration, when Hoyer served as Democratic Caucus chairman.

"It will not be chaos. ... [Obama] will get along well with leadership and membership" in both the Senate and House, and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will have a close working relationship. He said that he maintains regular contact with Obama's chief legislative liaison Phil Schiliro, the former longtime aide of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

The Democrats' prospects for congressional elections also remain upbeat, said Hoyer, who has traveled more than 67,000 miles to 87 House districts in this cycle. With the battleground in swing districts, he expects that Democrats will increase numbers in the Blue Dog Coalition, with whom Hoyer has been most comfortable.

Although he declined to forecast a pickup number, Hoyer highlighted his party's continued double-digit lead in generic national polling and the Democrats' huge fundraising advantage, plus the fact that roughly two-thirds of the House seats in play this November are held by Republicans. He has conceded some concern with the fate of freshman Democrats holding GOP-leaning seats.

He said that House Republicans gained some traction this summer with their push for energy legislation, but that the conflict has been diminished by the Democrats' response, plus the overwhelming focus on the Wall Street bailout plan. He added that the GOP's initial boost from the vice-presidential nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in energizing the party's base has been subsumed by the renewed focus on Obama and McCain, and that McCain has been hurt by his polarizing selection.

As the longest-serving Democratic leader on Capitol Hill and the representative of a relatively competitive and rural district in southern Maryland, the 69-year-old Hoyer brings a seasoned approach and continued ambition that complement his careful and silver-haired demeanor.

Following his easy win in the unexpected leadership challenge from Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. -- who had the backing of House Speaker Pelosi -- at the start of this Congress, he lavishes praise on the San Francisco liberal, and contends that their separate ideologies and styles offer "a very balanced leadership."

Like Pelosi, he points to their support this spring of a compromise with the Bush administration on the overhaul of the foreign intelligence surveillance program, which Obama also backed but many liberals opposed; he worked closely with Minority Whip Blunt in those negotiations. And he emphasizes his agreement with the Blue Dogs on the need to put the federal government on a pay-as-you-go regimen.

A longtime House appropriator, he remains familiar with budget legerdemain and the details of many federal programs. Such approaches would be crucial to the success of an Obama legislative agenda.

Another part of Hoyer's persona that bears watching is his close working relationship with most of the House's committee chairmen -- who, not coincidentally, largely backed him in his contest with Murtha. In contrast to Pelosi, who has occasionally ruffled feathers with House barons, the former Maryland Senate president takes more of a "regular order" approach to legislating.

His grassroots focus also has been evident in his intensive efforts to aid Democratic nominee Frank Kratovil in the unexpectedly competitive contest for the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In 2006, Hoyer's backing was instrumental to the campaign success of his longtime ally, now-Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.

Although filibuster politics might make the Senate the battleground that determines the ultimate scope of Democratic legislation next year, Hoyer and his House colleagues would play a vital role in initiating and defining the policy framework. Although some of his higher-profile Democratic leadership partners might gain more attention, his enthusiasm for that challenge is obvious.

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