Spring in their step

It was an early spring day last year when House Democrats notched their first significant victory of the 110th Congress.

On March 23, 2007, they passed their Iraq war-funding bill, 218-212. It was an enormous accomplishment for the new majority party, which had suffered countless losses on the House floor over the previous 12 years and had struggled for weeks to secure votes for the bill they said was the first step toward ending the Iraq war.

House Democrats knew President Bush would veto the measure, which he duly did. What they didn’t realize is that Bush would keep the upper hand on Iraq throughout 2007.

But regardless, there was a telling exchange on the House floor that Friday afternoon following the vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was getting congratulated on one side of the floor, while a beaming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was shaking every hand he could find.

As Pelosi moved to leave the chamber, she saw Hoyer and they immediately grasped each other’s hands and clenched tight. And then they embraced.

In previous years, the tension between Pelosi and Hoyer was obvious. When they appeared together, the looks in their eyes, their words and their body language all indicated awkwardness.

Pelosi defeated Hoyer in a bitter race for minority whip a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, so when Pelosi publicly backed Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for majority leader over Hoyer, many political operatives said the move confirmed that the relationship between the two leaders had been strained.

And indeed it was, despite constant denials from Pelosi and Hoyer aides since their 2001 clash.

But a strange thing happened after Hoyer easily defeated Murtha in November 2006: The Pelosi-Hoyer relationship improved. It didn’t happen right away, but the conflict and awkwardness that had been so obvious between the two leaders has, over time, dissipated.

In an interview with The Hill this week, Hoyer spoke with ease and charm about slow-dancing with Pelosi at the recent Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Perhaps more substantively, he also noted that he won his race against Murtha easily while every House Democrat backed Pelosi for Speaker. Through their leadership votes, House Democrats clearly expressed whom they wanted at the top, Hoyer said, and it has been necessary for the two principals to make an accommodation with each other.

To be successful in the majority, Pelosi and Hoyer knew they had to put aside their differences. For years, they said there was no problem between them. That assertion was simply not believable back then. But now it appears to be true, as it did after the Iraq vote on that Friday afternoon in March.