Filing in to a caucus meeting in the middle of March in the Capitol Visitors Center, skittish House Democrats were just a few fragile days away from passing an historic health care overhaul, but leadership had yet to round up the necessary votes. Nervous members watched each other to see who would jump first. Filing out, there was a feeling that they might just pull this off after all.
Steny Hoyer had intervened with a passionate appeal that asked the caucus to remember just why it is that they are Democrats. It wasn’t what most members were expecting.
“Normally he just gives the straight-forward schedule speech, here's what's happening, legislative schedule, stuff like that, a few comments about what was happening,” says Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.).
“He stood up and, without notes, gave what I think was one of the best and most influential speeches I've ever seen.”
To a cynical public and a seasoned group of lawmakers, a single speech would seem to have little ability to sway members of Congress. But each member approached for this story recalled it immediately and with rave reviews.
“He gave a tremendous speech in caucus about how significant historically this vote was, how seldom to members of Congress have the chance to vote for a bill of this magnitude,” says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “That speech was very effective. But that one speech was not enough to describe Steny Hoyer’s role in getting this passed.”
It was the second major intervention made by Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, in the closing weeks of the health care fight. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves credit for putting the steel in President Obama’s spine when Scott Brown had him going wobbly, Hoyer was the one who kept frightened Blue Dogs from bolting the pound in the crucial moments when the entire project could have fallen apart.
“After Scott Brown there was a sense that ‘Oh, gee wiz, the air's been let out of the balloon,’” Hoyer says. He implored the Blue Dogs not to rush to judgment against using reconciliation.
“Those caucuses right after the election, people had very strong feelings about we ought to get a smaller bill, we shouldn't move forward, we should just do insurance reforms,” says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally and chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. “I think we had a night one and then the next morning, that there was a lot of work to do. And the entire leadership, Steny, Clyburn, Larson, Becerra, myself and Rosa, we had to dive into this caucus and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. This has got to move forward.’"
Hoyer also worked closely with the White House, conveying the Blue Dog message in a way that Pelosi couldn’t. He worked particularly hard to detach the president from his cherished excise tax on Cadillac plans, which he clung to until the very end, even after campaigning against it.
“On policy grounds I think this is good policy,” says Hoyer. "On political grounds I thought it was trouble, mainly because an awful lot of people that were never going to be covered by it somehow have apprehension that they will be.”
It’s the type of realism that makes Hoyer an effective bridge between parties, but the White House wouldn’t back off and resisted the House approach of paying for health care with a surtax on the wealthy. “The point I made to the White House was, look, the tax that we put on was not going to be controversial at all,” says Hoyer accurately.
The excise tax on benefits created a much greater public outcry than the small hike in Medicare taxes did. Politically, the people opposed to the surtax on the wealthy were generally opposed to health care reform regardless. Yet the opposition to the excise tax on benefits came from unions, the base of the Democratic Party, which was working intensively to help the president pass reform, even as he kicked them in the shins along the way.
“When the Senate passed its bill, it was obvious that they were going to get some percentage that they wanted. As you know, the White House tried to accommodate labor in some of this [and] it was really not perceived well,” says Hoyer.
Hoyer worked hard to persuade Blue Dogs and conservative Democrats to switch their no votes to yes on final passage. He succeeded with two Florida Dems, Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas. “Steny is a good listener. He's what I call a member's member,” says Boyd. “But he doesn't like moving targets. If you tell him what your position is, he's like ‘Okay, now how can we get there?’”
Hoyer is headed to Boyd’s district to fund raise this weekend, but Blue Dogs he couldn’t sway are still getting friendly treatment. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) held firm and voted no twice. Hoyer called her potential primary opponent and talked him out of running.