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Hoyer Holds The Line

The ‘minority convincer’ doesn’t stop whipping when the gavel bangs

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Hoyer demurs when asked about eyeing Pelosi’s position. He describes House Democratic leadership as a “team thing.”

The House minority whip doesn’t set the congressional agenda. He doesn’t get to offer carrots such as earmarks and he doesn’t wield back-room bludgeons to keep members in lock step.

Instead, Steny H. Hoyer uses a different tool: the old-fashioned art of persuasion.

“I’m called the whip, but I’m the convincer,” the Maryland Democrat told CQ Roll Call over the course of three sit-down interviews. “I’m the minority convincer.”

As Congress veers toward a government shutdown and a debt ceiling showdown, Hoyer could play a pivotal role in convincing his colleagues to keep the lights on — or to turn them off.

Hoyer has been critical of any continuing resolution that maintains the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. If, as expected, the CR comes back to the House from the Senate scrubbed of Obamacare-defunding language, Republican support will surely drop and Democratic votes could matter.

And if Hoyer is not on board, other House Democrats might not be either.

“Our whip has been very, very forceful and I think he speaks for our caucus almost across the board when he says we just cannot have that number,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters last week.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., agreed. “Even if he doesn’t ask anybody,” he said, Hoyer’s stance “is gonna attract people.”

Likewise, Hoyer’s powers of persuasion will almost certainly be needed to secure Democratic votes for a debt ceiling hike once a deal is reached.

In 2013 alone, Hoyer’s whip operation has secured near-unanimity on numerous measures and total Democratic unity on six major pieces of legislation: the GOP budget resolution, the GOP debt prioritization bill, the bill to shut down the National Labor Relations Board, the Violence Against Women Act and the two-part farm bill.

The 40-year legislator attributes that record in part to what he calls “the psychology of consensus” — a concept he introduced more than a decade ago during his first stint as minority whip.

“I wanted people to get up in the morning and think, ‘I want to be with the team,’” he said.

“Threats don’t work,” he added — and nearly a dozen Democrats, during interviews with CQ Roll Call, agreed that’s not Hoyer’s style.

“There’s no badgering,” said freshman Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

“There’s no hammer,” said Rep. José E. Serrano of New York. “He’s never asked me to vote for something he knows I don’t believe in.”

And while Hoyer has long been a voice in leadership for the party’s moderates, particularly on fiscal issues, he’s cultivated relationships across the caucus.

“He is not a flaming liberal,” Serrano said. “He’s not where I am on the political spectrum. And yet he draws people like me to him.”

Hoyer said his whip philosophy goes something like this: “Look, I want you with me today, but I also know I’m going to want you with me tomorrow and the next day and the day after.” Which means he doesn’t stop whipping once the gavel bangs.

First-term Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona told CQ Roll Call that Hoyer contacted her after the first farm bill vote, on which she broke from the whip’s recommendation and voted “yes.”

“Hoyer called me after the vote, reached out to me, and he reminded me I’m here to serve my district and my community and that’s the best way to do my job and do it well, and keep my eye on the bigger picture,” she recalled.

Sinema is a moderate Democrat in a vulnerable seat, what is known as a “frontliner,” and Hoyer, a moderate himself, has always been close with those members. The minority whip knows they sometimes need a pass to vote against the party line.

“Frankly, a member can look at me and say, ‘Hoyer, you didn’t elect me; my people elected me, I work for them, not for you.’ And they’re absolutely right,” Hoyer said. “They don’t work for me, they don’t work for Nancy. They work for the people in their district. So you have to convince them.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional hard sell. At times, he’ll say, “Look, we really need you on this.”

And don’t try spinning him.

“If a member is kind of gamesmanly or a member tries to spin me or play me, that’s a different thing,” Hoyer said, adding that consequences could include withholding committee assignments, promotions within the institution, travel or speaking opportunities.

Hoyer also serves as an attack dog toward the right, and he seems to delight in his indignation over “Republican radicalism.”

His weekly pen-and-pad briefing is an exercise in scheduling updates and reminding reporters that the GOP is “deeply divided” and “terrified of the tea party.”

Hoyer said his job is made easier because the Democrats understand compromise is necessary.

Many members of the new Republican Conference, he said, “are not really interested in leadership,” and were elected in “a sort of ‘get rid of government’ theory.

“And so Boehner is confronted with that,” Hoyer said.

During his weekly colloquy with Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Hoyer routinely works himself up to near-shouting on the House floor, asking Cantor questions to which he already knows the answers — and he does it so convincingly that no one questions his frustration.

Serrano said that’s because it is genuine.

“He honestly has great respect for the institution, and when he feels that the other side, or anybody for that matter, is trying to bring down the institution, there’s outrage,” Serrano said.

At 74, Hoyer shows no signs of slowing down, continuing to raise funds at a fast clip and travel on behalf of candidates. Hoyer was the DCCC’s biggest member contributor, giving $1.1 million, and he raised about another $5 million for the DCCC. He also made campaign stops for 87 members and candidates.

Ambitious and driven, he’s frequently asked if he has his eyes on the top job when Pelosi steps aside. Ever the politician, Hoyer just smiles and demurs. He describes House Democratic leadership as a “team thing,” and his past rival Pelosi recognizes that quality in him.

“When he is persuading someone about a point of view, it isn’t a standard partisan line; it’s a, ‘I believe in the big picture, I understand it, this is the better course of action,’” Pelosi said. “He understands that we all have a role to the entire House of Representatives.”

For Hoyer, courting members begins at the start of each new Congress, when he takes Democratic freshmen on a tour of the Capitol.

They end on the House floor, where Hoyer reads them a quote from one of his favorite political philosophers.

“It’s a comment by Edmund Burke, who says that every member owes his closest attention and time to his constituents — that he owes them careful consideration of their views, their suggestions, and their concerns. But in the final analysis, what he owes them the most is his or her best judgment,” Hoyer said.

“And obviously one of the reasons we’re leaders is because they believe we have good judgment and can give good advice,” he said. “Or we wouldn’t be leaders.”

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