The Baltimore Sun
WASHINGTON - As the No. 2 Democratic leader in a House dominated by Republicans, Maryland's Steny H. Hoyer is doomed to lose nearly every battle. But these days, he is earning credit for his party's rare victories and for keeping Democrats more united in defeat than at any time in recent memory.
A smooth politician who was pegged early on as a rising star, Hoyer spent two decades in the House climbing to the job of party whip - a decidedly mixed blessing in a chamber where Republicans hold a 24-seat edge.
House Democrats are all but helpless to stop Republicans from advancing President Bush's agenda. Yet that makes Hoyer's task all the more crucial. He is charged with keeping Democrats united, even as they suffer crushing losses, to push alternative ideas. Mindful of the 2004 elections, Hoyer is seeking to spotlight differences between the parties as a way to upend the Republicans.
"We think the American public is going to think ours are better alternatives," he said in a recent interview.
Six months into the job, Hoyer has won credit for imposing greater order on his party's rank and file as they confront a politically appealing Republican wish list that includes tax cuts and Medicare drug benefits.
And while Democratic victories have been few, Hoyer's tactics have helped force Republicans to withdraw some of their highest-priority items because they lacked enough Republican votes - or enough Democratic defectors - to pass.
One recent example occurred when Republicans had to cancel a vote on President Bush's plan to overhaul Head Start. That plan contained provisions, opposed by Democrats and some Republicans, that would have shifted some control of the federal program to the states.
Last month, Republicans were forced to pull a measure that would have changed labor laws that ensure time-and-a-half pay for overtime after Hoyer solidified Democratic resistance to the bill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has called Hoyer's efforts "vital to the Democratic unity we have seen recently." The California Democrat credited Hoyer with helping scuttle Republicans' plans - or at least forcing GOP members to back what she called "terrible" alternatives.
"Our unity says to them: Unless you're willing to have your guys walk the plank, you're not going to be passing these bills," she said.
"Discipline is what this is all about - making sure that you're putting Republicans, who want to advocate some of the policies they are, on the spot," said Vic Fazio, formerly a top House Democratic leader who served with Hoyer before leaving in 1999 to lobby. "Steny's role is to build discipline in the party."
To do so, Hoyer must usually make the best of Democratic losses. That was the case last month as Republicans sweated to find the votes to approve their $400 billion Medicare drug bill. Hoyer helped keep all but nine Democrats in line. In a post-midnight drama in which Republicans held the vote open for nearly an hour in search of a majority, the bill passed by the slimmest of margins, 216-215.
In May, Hoyer lost only seven Democrats who defected to support a $550 billion tax cut pushed by Bush. By contrast, in 2001, before Hoyer became whip, 28 Democrats had joined Republicans to approve Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut. That vote left Democrats unable to craft a compelling message for last year's elections to discredit Republican economic policies.
In March, Hoyer and Pelosi won praise despite their loss on the Republican budget blueprint, which was opposed by every Democrat but one. (The defector was Rep. Ralph M. Hall, a Texan who frequently sides with Republicans.)
Hoyer's work could be vital to the Democrats' bid to regain the House after eight years of Republican control. His goal is to help hammer home the point that if Democrats were in control, they would make better choices, such as directing tax cuts to the neediest and keeping the government, instead of private insurers, in charge of Medicare and drug benefits.
Democrats were roundly criticized after the 2002 election for failing to draw clear distinctions between themselves and Republicans. Hoyer vowed not to let that happen again.
"One of the criticisms of Democrats is that we haven't had a united message," he said in his spacious office on the third floor of the Capitol. "Well, the only way you have a united message is to have a united party, and that's my responsibility."
'Very worthy adversary'
It is one even House Republicans acknowledge that Hoyer is executing effectively.
"He's a very worthy adversary," said Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. "He doesn't make it easy to be the best because he's always looking for a way that he can keep us, frankly, from getting our work done."
The Medicare bill "really required everything it took to keep [Democratic] members from voting for it," said Terry Holt, a Republican strategist and former House leadership aide. "I think Hoyer, in a lot of ways, is the bright spot in Democratic leadership in the House."
Hoyer, 64, has not always played the role of defenseman. A natural politician dating to his time as treasurer of his junior high student government, Hoyer catapulted in 1975 from the helm of a political machine he helped build in Prince George's County to become, at age 35, the state Senate's youngest president.
In 1981, he won a hotly contested special election to replace Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman, who had suffered a stroke. Because he scored a Democratic victory so soon after Ronald Reagan had won the White House in a Republican landslide in 1980, Hoyer won a hero's welcome from Democrats on Capitol Hill. He was taken under the wing of the House leadership, then at the height of its power.
"I felt he had a tremendous ability to get something done, and that's what I was looking for," said former Rep. Tony Coelho, a Californian who, as a top House Democrat, recruited Hoyer to run for Congress. "I immediately identified him as somebody who could be part of the future leadership team. ... He's the whole package."
Hoyer came of age as a House leader at a time when his party enjoyed ample margins of control. From his first term until 1995, when they lost the majority, Democrats averaged an 81-seat edge over Republicans. Back then, leaders could afford to be less organized and more accommodating to Democrats who strayed from the party line.
These days, said Hoyer, now in his 12th term, "you really need to dot every i and cross every t."
Under Hoyer, that process begins long before a bill hits the House floor, in weekly meetings with his "senior whips." This group of about 30 spans the diverse and often fragmented Democratic spectrum, from the most liberal to the most conservative, including leaders of the black and Hispanic caucuses.
They strategize on issues likely to arise soon. Their goal is to vet a topic with various blocs, gauging their views and settling on a stance that would please the broadest swath of the party membership.
'A two-way street'
"Steny has really brought it to a point where it's a two-way street - we don't just try to get people to vote," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is a close friend. "It's listening, persuading, looking for consensus."
As major votes approach, Hoyer dispatches about 40 assistant whips, each of whom is in charge of polling and persuading five lawmakers, not just to oppose the Republican measure, but also to back a Democratic alternative they can later promote to voters back home.
"Sometimes you need a vote of what you're for, in order to vote against what the Republican bill is," said Rep. John Tanner, a conservative Tennessee Democrat. Hoyer has "done a great job making sure people know what we'd be for."
That was the case on the Medicare vote. Democratic leaders used procedural moves to allow three distinct groups - centrists, conservatives and liberals - to propose alternatives and have them voted on. In the end, each Democrat had the chance to vote "yes" on a Medicare proposal, while 18 Republicans opposed all the choices, including that of their own party.
"Is that a win?" Hoyer wondered aloud. "I think, in many respects, it was."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun