As hundreds of Democrats erupted in thunderous applause when the House healthcare bill crossed the 218-vote threshold, a group of conservative Blue Dog Democrats who opposed the bill sat silently in the center of the chamber.
There could have been many more of them. But beginning in June, when other House leaders were still focused on passing a climate change bill, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was beginning his quest to ensure that a very ideologically diverse caucus and a definitively liberal leadership met somewhere in the middle on a bill to reform healthcare.
“It was challenging,” said Hoyer, who on Thursday spoke to The Hill about the five-month-long grind leading up to the Nov. 7 passage of the lower chamber’s $894 billion healthcare reform measure.
“It’s still challenging,” he said with a wide smile. “We have a long way to go yet. But it was a good effort.”
One of Hoyer's biggest tasks was soothing angry Blue Dogs who reluctantly voted for the controversial climate change bill and were upset with the direction of healthcare reform.
In the end, 39 Democrats voted against the House bill, 24 of them members of the Blue Dog Coalition. Just three more defections would have sunk the bill, which won the support of only one Republican (though only after 218 Democratic votes had been registered).
The bill’s passage has won House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the lion’s share of the credit — credit Hoyer said she fully deserves.
But Hoyer was the first to notice, focus on and alert his fellow leaders to the fact that the draft bill being touted by three of Pelosi’s committee chairmen was taking a far more liberal shape than the make-up of the 258-member Democratic Caucus.
“From the outset, the bill was being put together by members of the progressive wing of the party,” Hoyer said. “So [in June] I suggested to the Speaker that we start having meetings with a broad spectrum of the caucus.”
Pelosi agreed and decided to participate as well, Hoyer said, and the two of them began to meet regularly with the three chairmen and Blue Dog Democrats, particularly as it became clear that it would take only seven Energy and Commerce Blue Dogs to thwart the bill.
When Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) found themselves with little common ground on which to stand with the Blue Dogs, Hoyer was there to prevent disagreements from becoming destructive.
The original tri-committee draft, which created a liberal-favored public insurance option tied to Medicare payments, was most of the leadership’s “expectation of what they thought was the best policy,” Hoyer said. “Remember: [Education and Labor Chairman George] Miller [D-Calif.], [Ways and Means Chairman Charles] Rangel [D-N.Y.] and Waxman are all members of the Progressive Caucus,” he said with a chuckle.
“The role I played was, I think, was making sure that everybody understood that different people had different expectations,” Hoyer explained. “And that in order to pass this bill we needed to try to have individuals’ expectations complement one another and reach a consensus among the various different players. And ultimately we did that.
Waxman ultimately supported efforts to appease the Blue Dogs in his committee, agreeing to a public option with negotiated rates. But, like the Speaker, he returned to praise the Medicare public option after the Congressional Budget Office calculated that it would produce more costs savings than the version that cleared his panel.
“The plus of our committee is that when we act, we’re much more representative of the House, and so we can work out the compromises that we have a better chance to pass through the House,” Waxman said on Thursday. “On the other hand, in some ways it’s nice to have a liberal majority and just get whatever you want through. But that’s not where we are.”
Waxman credited Hoyer with helping everyone get to a place of agreement.
“When I had to try to reach a compromise in my committee with the Blue Dogs, he was very active in urging us to get together and not let our differences keep us from developing a consensus,” he said.
Pelosi, too, quickly embraced the need to write a bill that was passable, not one that would be perceived as perfect to liberals or even her own wishes.
“That is what the legislative process is about,” Pelosi said in July, a few weeks before it became clear that she would have to abandon hope for a pre-August recess vote on the floor. “You don’t write the whole bill, introduce it and then go to the floor. This is the time now for an open process of bipartisan review of the bill in the committees.”
Democrats who have sometime clashed with the Speaker said privately that she deserved a great deal of credit for recognizing the need to move to the center at times and to rely on others to round up votes.
“She was aware of the depth of our caucus and she realized that no one person can do everything,” a Democratic member said. “And she took advantage of his ability to reach out within the caucus.”
According to aides present at the caucus meeting when leaders made their announcement that they had finally secured 218 votes, Pelosi responded to applause by grabbing Hoyer by the arm, putting her arm around him and making sure that he was recognized appropriately.
Members described it as very telling moment between the two former rivals. They noted that Hoyer, who supports abortion rights, was as intimately involved as Pelosi in negotiating a controversial abortion agreement that infuriated many liberal House members.
While many of those same liberals saw Pelosi as their champion throughout the healthcare struggle, they found just as strong an advocate in Hoyer.
“He’s someone who, no matter what, can give you an honest perspective on which of your priorities are actually achievable,” said a Democrat who supported the healthcare reform effort all along. “There’s a strong element of tough love there.”
And Hoyer said that tough love has been the key to achieving the level of trust that he has with members of the caucus.
“Members have to have a confidence level that what leadership is representing to them, in terms of trying to work compromises, that their views will be listened to and that they’ll be acted upon one way or another,” Hoyer said.