What is Hoyer gunning for?

For Immediate Release:

July 2, 2010

Contact:Jonathan Allen

Politico

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is raising his profile both as a statesman and a partisan street brawler as the November elections near, moves that have drawn praise from Democrats while raising a few questions about what he’s gunning for.

Hoyer is two-thirds of the way through a three-part series of major policy addresses on issues such as jobs, fiscal discipline and national security, which specifically appeal to independent voters whom pollsters say are fleeing Democrats.

And Republicans are furious over what they view as a nakedly partisan use of the House’s legislative calendar and amendment process by Democrats — whose floor efforts are driven by Hoyer.

So, what’s he up to?

These latest moves cast a more aggressive Hoyer as a national spokesman and idea generator for his party on issues where more patently liberal Democratic leaders — such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have less credibility with middle-of-the-road voters. Indeed, after three decades of building a reputation as a superior inside player, Hoyer is amping up his outside game.

There was a time when many of Hoyer’s moves were viewed with suspicion in the Pelosi camp, as those two have a rivalry that dates to Pelosi beating Hoyer in a 2001 leadership race and later backing the late Rep. John Murtha for majority leader in 2006 — though Pelosi’s office has nothing but praise now for Hoyer’s tough policy speeches.

Some Democratic leadership aides say Hoyer is trying to buttress his chances of taking over the spot as the top Democrat in the event that his party falls out of power and Pelosi steps aside.

“He’s positioning for minority leader,” said a senior aide to another member of the Democratic leadership. “And he’s doing a good job of it.”

Another aide agreed that it’s pretty clear that Hoyer is trying to “test-drive” messages for if and when his time comes to lead.

Hoyer and his aides say his intentions are more straightforward and that he is not being any more partisan than he has been.

“I’m working to lay out Democrats’ strong record on job creation, fiscal responsibility and national security as we head into this fall’s election and encouraging our members to go out to their districts and do the same,” Hoyer said. “The American people are focused on jobs and cutting spending, and it’s important for our members to tell their constituents how we’re addressing both issues. We also have to continue talking about how Democrats are strong on national security, so the public trusts and has confidence in our handling of that issue.”

There’s a clear strategy at work: In April, Hoyer and his aides held a series of meetings to plan how to help Democrats prepare for the election. They picked issues in Hoyer’s wheelhouse, formed working groups on all three and looked for ways — including making speeches and devising floor amendments — to assist fellow Democrats with their work on those issues.

Hoyer’s national security working group met with Gen. David Petraeus earlier this week when he was on Capitol Hill for a confirmation hearing on his appointment to run the war in Afghanistan — a meeting that allowed participants to tell constituents they have heard directly about the state of the American campaign in Asia.

His legislative team worked with Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers to craft an amendment to the defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to report to Congress on whether mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles should continue to be produced at a low level — an amendment that played in the Mississippi and Tennessee press as a job saver for a West Point, Miss., manufacturer.

His talk of fiscal responsibility reflects a growing concern not only among conservative Blue Dog Democrats but also within the most liberal Democratic circles about the policy and political implications of a national debt that has risen to more than $13 trillion.

“We’re lying to ourselves and our children, however, if we say we can maintain our current levels of entitlement spending, defense spending and taxation without bankrupting our country,” Hoyer said in a June 22 speech to the centrist Third Way. “This Congress restored the pay-as-you-go law, which prevents us from forcing our children to pay tomorrow for the programs we buy today. And combined with the economic growth, it can move our budget in the same direction.”

Republicans snicker at talk of fiscal responsibility from Hoyer and other Democrats in a year in which not a single appropriations bill has come to the floor and the House has failed to produce a budget for the first time since the Budget Act of 1974 took effect.

But for some Democrats, it’s important to fight back on spending — an issue Republicans hope will help carry them into the majority, district by district.

Rep. Baron Hill, a longtime Hoyer ally from Indiana’s politically tumultuous 9th District, noted just that in an interview with POLITICO. “To be able to refer to the majority leader’s remarks [to show] Democrats’ concern, it helps me,” Hill said.

In interviews with nearly two dozen Democratic insiders — even those who suggest ulterior motives — Hoyer uniformly wins high praise for promoting the party on issues where he is seen as having gravitas.

“Majority Leader Hoyer has been forcefully laying out Democrats’ strong record on jobs, fiscal responsibility and national security, while contrasting that with the Republicans, who continue to push the agenda of special interests at the expense of American jobs,” Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said. “That is the fight we have here everyday, and Mr. Hoyer continues to be very effective at making the case.”

While Democrats praise Hoyer, Republicans are chafing at the way Democrats use the floor — and the House schedule — for partisan gain.

The most recent frustration has been an expansion of the number of days on which the floor is used for “suspension” bills, theoretically noncontroversial items like post office namings and expressions of the sense of Congress on various matters. But increasingly, they have been used for more controversial items.

“This House should be hard at work on a budget or appropriations bills. Instead, the majority has given themselves expanded suspension authority for four straight weeks,” said Rep. David Dreier, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee. “This may seem like inside baseball, but in reality, it’s just another indication of a dysfunctional Congress that cannot perform its basic responsibilities.”

Colleagues say they’ve noticed Hoyer is also stepping up his game on the campaign trail, where he has visited 56 districts this election cycle and contributed or raised $4.6 million for candidates in tough districts, according to figures kept by his camp.

New York Rep. Jose Serrano, a longtime ally who got to know Hoyer well when the Marylander was on the Appropriations Committee, said Hoyer is a good voice for the party because he has the ability to “frame the issue in a way that makes sense and does not offend anybody.”

One Democratic lawmaker who has voted against Hoyer in a series of leadership elections — including when Pelosi worked to install Murtha in the majority leader’s job — said Hoyer should not have any trouble moving up if the speaker leaves office.

“There are a lot of us who feel we have an unpaid debt to Steny because we opposed him in races along the way,” the lawmaker said. “I’m dying to make it up to him.”

Posted in