He's 15 minutes late, but it hardly matters. In 15 seconds, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer will have a room full of hard-boiled political reporters giggling like schoolchildren.
"Good morning, class!" he bellows, taking his seat at the head of a conference table.
"Good morning, Mr. Hoyer!" a dozen reporters respond, breaking into sheepish laughter and scattered guffaws as a few senior journalists scowl with disapproval.
A briefing such as this -- coming once a week, lasting barely a half-hour and offering the only sure opportunity for Capitol Hill reporters to grill a member of the House Democratic leadership -- is no trifling matter, no time to waste with corny banter or simpering drolleries.
Every moment offers a chance to prod and question, ferret out facts, investigate inconsistencies, tear down talking points and perhaps, on a good day, watch a seasoned politician let slip one sublimely blunt statement of what he actually thinks but never should have said. But with Hoyer, the press corps' bloodlust dissipates, their pens slow, their demeanor softens. They fall prey to Hoyer's mix of humor and sound bites, a formula that helps Democrats strengthen their message in the media and earns Hoyer gobs of favorable coverage of his own.
Hoyer is the House Democrats' snake charmer when it comes to the press.
At the briefing, one reporter leans over to Hoyer: "If only everyone in your party were as submissive as this group."
Hoyer grins. "I'm going to leave that alone."
Since his party took control of the House, the 67-year-old Maryland Democrat, resplendent with his silver hair and bright white teeth, has emerged as the Democratic leadership's front man with the media. He happily spars with reporters at press briefings, sits for interviews with cantankerous TV news hosts and debates Republicans on the Sunday talk show circuit.
Much of it comes with his job as the No. 2 Democrat in the House -- he determines the schedule of bills on the House floor and defends Democrats on many partisan issues -- but it is also his natural ability and a zest for the role.
"Steny is very, very smooth, smooth as silk. He's one of the best speakers around here," said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).
At one March briefing, Hoyer is at the top of his game, jokingly accusing the reporters of having partisan tape recorders. After several of the devices shut off unexpectedly while he is denouncing Republican attacks on the Democratic budget, Hoyer squints and asks, "Did Boehner give you these?" referring to House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio. The room erupts in laughter.
On another occasion, Hoyer arrives at his third press conference in a single day and greets the assembled reporters with a teasing dismissal -- "Same old crowd!" -- then joins lawmakers who arrived earlier and have been quietly eyeing the press corps with trepidation.
"You spoke at my high school graduation," yells one admiring journalist.
"Don't tell me that. You're making me feel old!" Hoyer jokes.
"Hoyer is just a likable guy," said one Capitol Hill reporter. "He's easy to talk to. He's approachable. But he's like that with everyone, not just the press."
A widower for a decade, Hoyer throws all his energy into politics, colleagues say. He is the only House Democratic leader to take questions from reporters on a weekly basis and is typically well-prepared by an aggressive staff. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ended her regular briefings after becoming speaker.
Hoyer's performances, infused as they are with witty repartee, are also usually on message, expounding on issues that play well for Democrats and playing down others. With a nod toward shrewd internal politics, he defers to Pelosi on some matters.
When a reporter asks if Hoyer will make sure that Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's proposal to impeach Vice President Cheney "never sees the light of day," Hoyer recognizes it as a story Democratic leaders want to see die. He responds with a twofer, a bland comment combined with a nod to Pelosi: "Some time ago, Speaker Pelosi indicated that what we need to do is focus on the substance of the issues at hand, and that's what we're going to do."
Hoyer's popularity extends beyond the briefing room. He has been the subject of a number of favorable articles in recent weeks. A profile of him appearing last week in The Hill newspaper calls him a "shrewd and respected elder statesman" who inspires "unflinching loyalty" and whose "persistence and resilience are legendary."
A Washington Post piece chronicling Hoyer's life refers to him as a "pragmatist, skilled at navigating the legislative maze and wooing K Street lobbyists. A workaholic who makes the trains run on time."
Asked about the Post piece -- and, specifically, how much he paid the paper to run it -- Hoyer responded with trademark mirth: "I resented some of the attacks on that article!"