House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (Md.) role as the consummate deal-maker who can smooth over the vast differences in the Democratic Caucus has made him the go-to guy in recent weeks as President Barack Obama looks to pass his ambitious budget and health care plans.
Hoyer has the trust of the party’s crucial moderate wing and played a key role behind the scenes in getting their support for Obama’s budget, albeit with a few significant nods to their sensibilities.
“We’ve tried to thread the needle here and hopefully we have,” Hoyer said in an interview from his Capitol office on Friday.
“We had 15 or more meetings with various groups, chairmen and Members. It’s been a pretty extensive involvement,” Hoyer said, adding that he personally met with the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition at least five times.
Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the Caucus’ ultimate arbiter, she and her one-time rival, Hoyer, have been working in tandem to stitch the liberal and moderate wings together.
“What the Speaker relies on me to do is give her an accurate reading on what the New Dems and Blue Dogs can and can’t do,” he said, although he noted that both he and Pelosi speak directly to all the various groups.
“The good news is most Democrats agree with the president’s priorities,” Hoyer said.
This is familiar territory for Hoyer, who has long worked quietly to forge intraparty compromises on tough issues. Last fall when two of his longtime allies, Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.) and John Dingell (Mich.), squared off in a bitter battle over the Energy and Commerce gavel, Hoyer stepped in to try to broker a detente. He also finds himself — in addition to the budget and health care battles — in the middle of trying to work a deal on a controversial bill to give the District of Columbia voting representation in the House, a measure near to his heart but mired in a partisan feud over gun rights.
The 15-term Maryland Democrat helped the Blue Dogs get a $7 billion cut to Obama’s spending plans, and, more importantly to the bloc, a commitment to pass statutory pay-as-you-go legislation intended to restrict future deficits. The Blue Dogs also won a commitment not to use fast-track budget rules to pass a controversial carbon cap-and-trade program. And moderates led by Hoyer also fended off efforts by the Congressional Progressive Caucus to slash defense spending — a cut that could prove politically disastrous in many swing districts.
Those concessions appear to be enough to get many of those moderates to sign on to the budget plan despite its record-setting debt and spending levels.
Hoyer said Blue Dogs have repeatedly shown their pragmatism, with many voting for last year’s financial rescue package, this year’s stimulus and omnibus spending bills and endorsing the $3-trillion-plus budget to be voted on this week.
“If you’d asked any of us a year ago if we were going to vote on these kinds of pieces of legislation, we would have said, ‘Not on your life. These figures are just way out of control,’” Hoyer said. “The problem is we are confronted with a crisis of historic proportions. The Blue Dogs understand that.”
Hoyer has helped negotiate the Democratic spending blueprint in previous years with Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), but those budgets were of little consequence because Democrats were dealing with a Republican president who dismissed Democratic spending plans.
“Now this is the real deal,” Hoyer said. “We’re shooting with real bullets.”
Hoyer also has emerged as the traffic cop of sorts on the volatile issue of health care reform, where he will coordinate between the various committee chairmen and even seek to reach a bipartisan compromise with his longtime Republican friend, Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who heads a GOP task force on the issue.
The duo, who forged a relationship when Blunt was the GOP’s Whip, negotiated last year’s deal on long-delayed domestic wiretapping legislation, one of a number of thorny issues that have landed on Hoyer’s plate.
Health care is full of potential pitfalls, not the least of which is the delicate task of pushing a public health care option — or allowing participants to choose government-run insurance — strongly backed by Pelosi and the party’s liberals, without losing the moderates.
Hoyer said Democrats, from Obama on down, are keen not to repeat the mistakes of 1993, when internal divisions sank health care reform, an energy tax and other pieces of President Bill Clinton’s agenda, and led to an electoral drubbing a year later.
“It’s not going to be a dictated result right from the beginning,” Hoyer said of this year’s agenda, noting that Obama has embraced more of a bottom-up approach.
“We need to listen to everybody, sort of digest their views and try to get their views included so that when we ultimately come to a vote, it is acceptable to a broad [swath] of the Caucus,” Hoyer said.
“This business is a lot of listening.”