By Mike Lillis and Bob Cusack - 04/22/11 10:00 AM EDT
This year’s budget battles have forged a loose bond between President Obama and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) while revealing some distance between the White House and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The informal alliance has propelled the minority whip into the spotlight of the spending debate, bolstered his reputation as a centrist dealmaker and even led some Democrats to suggest he should lead the caucus in the looming talks over raising the nation’s debt limit.
At the same time, however, GOP leaders in the lower chamber have struggled to rally enough votes to pass legislation, making them reliant on Democrats. The unusual dynamics cater well to Hoyer, a fiscal centrist known for his working relationships with Blue Dogs and GOP leaders.
“If you’re going to have anything done in the House [that’s] bipartisan, Steny Hoyer is going to have to be involved,” said a House Democratic aide who works for a Blue Dog.
Hoyer, who has taken a backseat to Pelosi for a decade, has been quick to seize the opportunity.
On the morning of the final vote on the fiscal 2011 continuing resolution (CR), House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called the Maryland Democrat requesting help to get the bill over the finish line. Shortly afterward, Hoyer tweeted that he planned to support the measure.
The Democrats’ support proved necessary, as only 179 Republicans voted for the bill — well shy of the 218 needed.
Pelosi, meanwhile, voted no, pointing out she felt “no ownership” of the deal Obama struck with Senate Democrats and Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerConservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Ohio).
The California Democrat, who also rejected stopgap spending measures that Obama backed, suggested she would have voted for the final deal if her support was needed. But Pelosi also made clear she knew Republicans had the votes, with the help of 81 of 189 voting Democrats.
In January, 19 House Democrats did not vote for Pelosi for Speaker as all Republicans supported BoehnerJohn BoehnerConservative allies on opposite sides in GOP primary fight Clinton maps out first 100 days The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE. A 20th Democrat who has been critical of Pelosi, Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), skipped the vote. All of those members — minus Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is recovering from a gunshot wound — voted with Hoyer in favor of the 2011 spending bill.
If Pelosi made a point to oppose the spending cuts to draw a distinction between the parties, Hoyer took pains to cast himself as the pragmatist who would make concessions for the sake of a deal. He also recently called a past vote against raising the debt limit a “mistake,” echoing a statement made by Obama just days earlier.
It’s not just the spending debate where Obama’s centrist shift is now melding with Hoyer’s legislative leanings. Hoyer traveled this week to Colombia, where he endorsed an imminent trade deal historically opposed by liberals, including Pelosi.
“Colombia is a critical ally to the United States, and I strongly believe it is in our economic and national security interests to strengthen our ties by moving the agreement forward,” Hoyer said in a statement.
Julian Zelizer, political scientist at Princeton University, noted the “constant battle” between the liberal lawmakers who constitute the Democrats’ base and the centrist Blue Dogs who helped the party win control of the House in 2006. In the current political environment, he added, it’s the latter’s fiscal policies that are winning out — even in the face of Pelosi’s opposition.
“While making many deals with the Blue Dogs, Pelosi always kept coming back to core ideas of liberalism and insisted on that framework as negotiations took place,” Zelizer said. “But the balance seems to be shifting.”
Some Blue Dogs say Hoyer’s role during the CR debate should earn him a seat at the table as the talks move forward on the debt ceiling and the fiscal 2012 budget.
“I think Steny’s hand is very much strengthened by this process and he should be brought into the negotiations in the future,” Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) told Roll Call this month.
Some Republicans also see Hoyer as the more flexible negotiator.
“Hoyer is a far more serious legislator and negotiator than former Speaker Pelosi,” said a GOP leadership aide.
Hoyer enjoys good relationships with Boehner and McCarthy, as well as with many rank-and-file Republicans.
In a 2009 survey conducted by The Hill, Republican lawmakers cited Hoyer as one of the most bipartisan members in Congress.
Unlike many of his Democratic colleagues, Hoyer has said he is open to raising the retirement age for Social Security.
Hoyer is trying to get out in front on the debt-ceiling debate, orchestrating a recent meeting between Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Democratic deputy whips. Pelosi was not a part of the gathering.
After the 2010 election, many political analysts expected that Pelosi would step down and Hoyer would take over as the House’s top Democrat. But Pelosi stayed on, and Hoyer abided by a promise he made never to run against her again after their bitter 2001 leadership race.
Since Pelosi won that contest, Hoyer has been careful to defer to the Californian. At times, their relationship in the minority between 2001 and 2006 was strained as their staffs battled behind the scenes. While in the majority, however, there was rarely any daylight between the two leaders.
Most say the Pelosi-Hoyer relationship is strong, but the politics of the 112th Congress have given Hoyer more freedom and increased his political stock.
Pelosi’s office rejects the notion that House Democratic leadership dynamics have shifted since the start of the Congress. It also notes that a majority of the caucus sided with Pelosi during the CR fight, a vote that was not whipped by Democratic leaders.
Furthermore, Pelosi recently named Reps. James Clyburn (S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) to the bipartisan deficit-reduction group being led by Vice President Biden. Clyburn voted against the 2011 spending bill and Van Hollen supported it.
Looking ahead to the broader budget battles, Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the Democrats will be united behind Obama’s vision, particularly as the president has adamantly opposed the Republicans’ proposal to revamp the Medicare program.
“There’s no separation there,” Elshami said.
Hoyer, for his part, already appears to be eyeing ways to cut a deal.
“There are deep differences between the two parties, but we have to find common ground,” Hoyer said Wednesday in an email, “and I will continue to articulate ideas on how to achieve that.”