House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stands at a crossroads in the Democratic agenda.
Down one path lie easy-does-it items designed to gather bipartisan support and show the party is committed to job growth in the hopes of staving off a midterm election bloodbath. Down the other lie controversial measures that Democrats could use their cresting majority to muscle through while potentially endangering even more seats.
According to many conservative Democrats nervously eyeing re-election this fall, the road forks at a bill banning employers from discriminating against gay and transgender people.
The decision about which path to take, of course, is not Hoyer’s alone. The Maryland Democrat serves as No. 2 to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who keeps an especially strong grip on setting the Caucus’ course.
But as the moderates’ most powerful champion, Hoyer is frequently the first to give voice to their angst in the councils of leadership and, publicly, nudge a liberal-dominated Caucus back toward the center. In the case of the employment discrimination ban, however, Hoyer is caught between his dedication to shoring up the most politically imperiled lawmakers — many of whom hail from rural, socially conservative districts and view a liberal social agenda as anathema — and a quiet, personal commitment to a civil rights cause he sees as a first principle.
“I’m a very strong proponent of non-discrimination,” Hoyer, in a recent interview, said of his backing for the bill — officially the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Noting his work in the civil rights movement in college and his sponsorship of the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the Majority Leader said, “I feel very strongly that we ought to treat every American based upon their character and their willingness to work, and their willingness to obey the laws of our country — not some arbitrary distinction on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”
For now, a team of proponents — led by Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), whose panel will take up the measure — is counting votes full steam ahead for a more ambitious version of ENDA than the one that passed in 2007. The 2007 bill, which did not include coverage for transgender people, passed by a comfortable margin, picking up 35 Republican votes.
The measure’s backers, Hoyer included, point to that vote as evidence that it is not controversial. But to some Blue Dog Democrats, the padded majority the narrower version mustered two years ago belies a deep unease about it in their ranks. And their hang-ups are exacerbated by the inclusion of protections for transgender people — which is already prompting Republican supporters to threaten bolting — and a historically sour political climate.
“I’ll just say that I think it’s time to focus on jobs,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who voted “no” on ENDA in 2007. While Lipinski, who isn’t a Blue Dog, said he would reconsider his vote on the earlier version of the bill, “all we should be focusing on right now is jobs, doing appropriations bills. ... It’s up to the leadership to reach a conclusion about what they want to do and what they think is the best thing to do.”
Added a senior Blue Dog, “This is not about a commitment to gay rights or civil rights. It’s about where are you going to spend your time and your capital.”
The decision about how, or whether, to proceed with ENDA won’t bind Democratic options for the rest of the year. But Democrats facing bruising re-election fights are looking at how leadership tacks on this — potentially the first major, contentious item they take up after the passage of a sweeping health care overhaul last month — as an early clue. Looming is the possibility of gut-check votes on a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay soldiers from serving, on a budget in the face of record deficits and, if the Senate can pass them first, on immigration and energy overhauls.
“This is bigger than just ENDA,” one senior Democratic aide said. “There are some who say we’ve got a big majority for six more months and we’ve got to spend that political capital. There are others who say we’ve taken enough hard votes in this Congress, and it’s time to make sure our guys come back.”
The starkness of the political challenge facing the majority was brought home to the rank and file last week, when pollster Geoff Garin briefed the Caucus on a poll showing that the GOP enjoys a 16-point generic ballot edge over Democrats among independents — a crucial constituency for those representing swing districts. The poll showed voters’ biggest concern about the Democratic Congress, according to one person in the room, is that “they are spending too much money and putting us deep into debt.”
How leaders internalize those messages remains to be seen. Hoyer is a self-styled pragmatist, often articulating a middle course that more liberal members of the leadership eventually come around to. On the intraparty battle that dominated the fall debate over health care, for example — on the fate of a public insurance option — Hoyer created some distance between himself and Pelosi by making clear early on that while he supported the provision, he didn’t think it was central to the overhaul. A moderated version of the public option made it into the House-passed bill, but Democrats dropped it in the final package.
In other cases, Hoyer has stood up for moderate prerogatives even when he openly disagrees with them. During the financial regulatory reform debate in the House last year, the Majority Leader ensured that freshman Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) got a chance to offer a floor amendment rolling back a proposed consumer financial protection agency — then worked vigorously to defeat it. “It was a fair position, to give him an opportunity to offer it, argue it, to represent what he thought his constituents believed,” Hoyer said. The amendment failed, and the bill passed.
When conservative Democrats find themselves on the opposite side of a vote from the majority of the party, Hoyer has worked to limit the fallout among leaders and allies. In the wake of the health care vote last month, that meant reminding committee chairmen not to exact reprisals on those who voted against final passage. “The only point I’ve been making since the health care vote is, ‘Look, whether they voted for or against, they are part of our Caucus, they are critically important members of our Caucus, they bring views to our Caucus that are central to our ability to making balanced, good judgments, and that we need to promote all of our Members,” he said.
He made a similar argument to labor union leaders, some of whom have flirted with attacking Democratic “no” votes. And he made a personal call to a South Dakota doctor mulling a primary challenge to Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), a Blue Dog leader who opposed health care reform, to talk him out of the race.
But Hoyer has also personally weathered the difficult politics of gay rights issues. He emerged from the 1980s with a liberal voting record representing a near-majority black district in Prince George’s County. Redistricting moved him south, and gave him a larger white, conservative constituency. His 1992 re-election proved the toughest fight of his career in the House, and he squeaked to a victory with 53 percent of the vote.
In the wake of that contest, and even as he tacked right on other issues to reflect the profile of his newly drawn district, Hoyer voted for then-President Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — a proposal that helped feed the 1994 midterm backlash that swept Democrats from power in Congress. Despite the party’s dismal performance that year, Hoyer won re-election with 59 percent.
Explaining how he defended the vote back home, Hoyer said: “I think you have to be true to yourself, and people have to feel you’re honest. ... Even if they disagree with you, they respect the fact you have the courage of your convictions and the courage to tell them what you believe. I believe discrimination is un-American.”