Player of the Week: Steny Hoyer
Which party won this week's round of high-stakes legislative deal making on Capitol Hill? On both the just-passed terrorist surveillance bill and the supplemental spending package that passed Thursday night, Democrats and Republicans have been crowing that they got the better end of the bargain. That's as it should be; if one side didn't feel it had anything to brag about, then it wouldn't have agreed to the deal in the first place.
But in Capitol Briefing's mind, there's little doubt which member played the most important and interesting role in the deal-fest: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Nineteen months ago, Hoyer trounced Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) in the race for Majority Leader in a contest that was partly a referendum on the Iraq War and Democratic tactics to end it. Backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Murtha ran on a platform of bringing the war to a hasty end and the assertion that Hoyer was too moderate and too inclined to cut deals with Republicans. (This charge was ironic, since Murtha has been cutting deals with Republicans for years on a whole host of issues, but that's a blog post for another day.)
Hoyer won that race, 149to 86. but that didn't mean 149 Democrats thought he was right about Iraq, or any other issue, while 86 thought he was wrong. Rather, the victory was a testament to Murtha's flaws and to members' appreciation for the role Hoyer plays in the Caucus -- an emissary to conservatives and a leader who knows how to sit down with Republicans (he's even friends with a few of them!!) and cut a deal.
Fast forward to this week. Hoyer has been the lead Democratic negotiator on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act since the GOP's version of the bill expired in February. Like nearly all Democrats, Hoyer was opposed to granting immunity to telecommunications companies for their past cooperation with intelligence operations. But unlike some in his party, Hoyer did think Democrats needed to cut a deal eventually, lest their candidates be accused in November of not caring about national security.
So cut a deal he did, and not every Democrat liked it. Plenty of liberals and civil liberties groups attacked it. Pelosi said some nice things about the measure Thursday, that it was "balanced" and "an improvement over the Senate bill," and she voted for it today. But her praise was definitely measured: "I could argue it either way, not being a lawyer, but nonetheless, I could argue it either way."
Speaking on the House floor today just before the FISA bill passed, Hoyer summed up his own thoughts and, perhaps, his governing philosophy: "Today, I stand in support of a different kind of bill - a compromise. To be clear, this is not the bill I would have written in an ideal world. However, in our legislative process, no one gets everything he or she wants. Different parties -- often with deeply competing interests -- come together here to produce a consensus product, where each side gives and takes."
Maybe the deal on FISA helped lay the groundwork for an agreement on the supplemental bill. Or maybe the timing was a coincidence. But that agreement also shed light on Hoyer's worldview.
Back in late January, Hoyer made clear he believed Democrats needed to stop tying troop withdrawal language to every Iraq funding bill that moved through the pipeline. That strategy simply hadn't been working, and as with FISA, Hoyer was concerned about making Democrats vulnerable to attacks from the GOP.
"The problem with -- in my opinion, this is my view, speaking for Steny Hoyer -- always attaching [withdrawal language] to funding issues ... [is] that is subject on both sides of the Capitol to concerns about supporting the troops," Hoyer said at the time.
This week's deal on the supplemental bill, of course, did not include any substantive strings attached to the war money. Hoyer and most Democrats knew that they were never going to get withdrawal language signed into law, but they were still able to extract other concessions from President Bush and Hill Republicans on the GI Bill and an extension of unemployment benefits. This wasn't necessarily a victory for Hoyer, since he wasn't the one that negotiated the deal.
He did, however, vote for the no-strings-attached war money part of the bill along with 79 other Democrats, while Pelosi was one of 151 Democrats to vote against the measure. It is rare for the top two leaders in either party, in either chamber, to split on such a crucial issue, but Pelosi and Hoyer have been voting apart on Iraq and a handful of other issues for years and will continue to do so.
The two have also been known to part ways on the political front. During the heated Democratic presidential primary, Pelosi joined many party activists in fretting that unelected superdelegates might somehow conspire to hand the nomination to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Deliberately or not, Hoyer repeatedly echoed the arguments of the Clinton camp that superdelegates should vote their consciense and not feel unduly pressured by the popular vote or pledged delegate totals.
After 27 years in the House, Hoyer has likely hit his ceiling in Congress, and in politics. His 69th birthday was last weekend, and, barring a dramatic event, it's hard to see how he'll ever become Speaker. He has no particular designs on any higher federal or statewide office. At the same time, his demonstration of strength against Murtha and Democrats' likely continued good electoral fortunes mean his job as Majority Leader appears secure for the foreseeable future.
After his decisive loss to Pelosi for the party whip post back in 2001, Hoyer never was able to reach the top House Democratic position. But his opponents within the Caucus haven't been able to unseat him, either. So one could argue that his current and final standing in the House, appropriately enough, is a compromise.
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