The story hit at 10:40 p.m. the night before House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was expected to make a major announcement.
Though her official decision was less than 12 hours away, nearly all of Washington, including the California Democrat’s top aides, was still in the dark about whether she would say she was staying in or leaving Congress.
So liberal activists, led in the House by Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, launched an urgent bid to lobby Pelosi to stay on as the top House Democrat. If she didn’t, the liberal Huffington Post reported, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, a “moderate Democrat with ties to business,” would ascend to her position.
Only Pelosi could unite Democrats on issues such as immigration, Schakowsky’s husband, Democratic activist Robert Creamer, told reporter Ryan Grim. Without Pelosi, a “conservative Democrat will take over. It will be bad news,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee told its San Francisco members that evening.
The next day, Pelosi announced she was sticking around after all, rendering the whole exercise unnecessary. But if Pelosi had decided to retire or step down from leadership, the high-profile doubts aired about Hoyer don’t reflect his standing with progressives inside the Capitol.
Despite the rap that he is too centrist and tied to the business community, Hoyer has cultivated key liberal allies in the House who would likely insulate him from any opposition he would encounter if the leader position were to open up.
“On the issues that matter to me, he’s always there. In this case, this phrase we always use, ‘labels don’t matter’ — it really doesn’t matter!” said Rep. José E. Serrano, D-N.Y., one of the most liberal members of the caucus.
“I am more liberal, more progressive than Hoyer and yet I always respect his opinion on key issues that we face,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He has, with great intentionality, reached out to all parts of the Democratic coalition represented in our caucus.”
Even some outside liberal groups say Hoyer has been a loyal Democrat.
“On every major battle, Hoyer has been in the trenches with progressives,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that about a year ago, he expressed his disagreement to Hoyer, one of Israel’s most ardent defenders in Congress, about his policy on checkpoints in the Gaza Strip.
In response, Hoyer invited Ellison to dine at the nearby Monocle restaurant. “Whenever I want to talk to Steny, he’s available. Whenever I want to express views, he’s open,” Ellison said.
Hoyer’s voting record lies near the middle of the Democratic caucus ideologically. It is to the right of Pelosi’s and the other members of the Democratic leadership team.
The Maryland Democrat is a deficit hawk and has pushed for a grand bargain that would be similar to the Bowles-Simpson plan that came out of the president’s 2010 deficit commission. Hoyer also is generally pro-free trade.
Plus, he is more muscular on national defense than many progressives. He voted to authorize the Iraq War. Pelosi didn’t, and Hoyer’s policies on the war drew fire from the late Rep. John Murtha in his ill-fated challenge to Hoyer in 2006.
Hoyer is leadership’s emissary to the Blue Dog Coalition, which, though their ranks are now diminished, were important to the passage of the health care overhaul. Hoyer also maintains good working relationships with key Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Hoyer does attract a fair amount of criticism from the left. Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, unloaded on Hoyer in an interview. “Hoyer is a corporate Democrat. He is incestuously in bed with lobbyists, loves holding events with lobbyists, and loves to cave in a way that helps corporate lobbyists instead of actually fighting for progressive principles,” Green said.
“There was a real sense of dread among progressive members of the Democratic caucus that an opportunity might be squandered by having the wrong leadership at the top,” he added.
Ellison, who called Green a friend, offered a different perspective. “Sometimes people who have a strong ideological perspective expect a degree of purity, if you will, and that’s not something that’s possible to do if you’re trying to lead a caucus as diverse as the Democratic caucus,” he said.
Schakowsky said her effort wasn’t motivated by her opposition to Hoyer but because she thought the Democratic caucus needed “stability” with the upcoming fiscal cliff debates.
The Illinois Democrat is also “extremely devoted” to Pelosi, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a liberal Hoyer fan, said. “It would be wrenching for many people to see her go no matter who is coming after her. If Barack Obama tried to run against Nancy Pelosi for leader of the House Democrats, Pelosi would win,” Welch said.
Despite their sometime rivalry, Hoyer and Pelosi work well as a team, outgoing Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson said. “He’s worked with her extraordinarily well. And they’ve had one another’s backs,” the Connecticut lawmaker said.