New Leaders’ Relationships Evolve Slowly

Posted April 11, 2003 at 6:27pm

With shuffled lineups on both sides, Republican and Democratic leaders in the House are still working through the process of growing comfortable with each other and developing solid lines of communication across the aisle.

Three months into the 108th Congress, Members and aides from both parties describe a set of relationships still in their infancy and marked by a mixture of mistrust and tenuous respect.

Democrats see Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as a known quantity, but the elevation of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to Majority Leader has made them somewhat more wary. And Republicans are still taking the measure of new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though several GOP leaders were quick to note that they enjoy a comfort level with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“I think it’s an evolving relationship,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. “The Speaker and Mrs. Pelosi have made great efforts to work together despite the fact that they often disagree.”

For all their ups and downs, Hastert and ex-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) certainly knew each other well, as did their staffs.

“Hastert started anew with Pelosi,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “I think in his perspective he started with a clean slate with her.”

A source close to Hastert said the Speaker is approaching the relationship with an open mind. “He has no reason not to trust her,” the source said.

Relations between the two parties have traditionally been somewhat strained. House Republicans often grumbled about how they were treated during their long years in the minority, and Democrats have made similar complaints since the chamber switched hands in 1995.

Aides and Members said Gephardt and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) never trusted one another.

“It had really dropped off with Gingrich,” noted Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). “Prior to then, when we were in the majority there were pretty good relations.”

But even after Gingrich left, Gephardt and Hastert had difficulty forging a friendship, sources and Members say.

“We had our ups and downs with them, but the down was the House chaplain — that was pretty tense,” said Steve Elmendorf, former chief of staff to Gephardt.

The strife erupted in 2000 when the two House leaders sparred over their pick for a new House chaplain. Democrats accused Republican leaders of anti-Catholic bias in filling the post, leading to a major battle and a long-standing bitterness that many say Hastert has yet to forget.

After 9/11, Quality Time

But the tenor between the two improved somewhat after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to sources on both sides, when they were forced to pull back from partisanship. The two worked together on many issues related to the war on terrorism and forged a new alliance with their Senate colleagues and President Bush.

“After 9/11 it was very good,” said Elmendorf. “The two spent some quality time together and both of them recognized that the other was operating in the interest of the country. They developed a healthy respect for one another.”

Elmendorf described two types of relationships — the day-to-day floor activity and the larger partisan policy debates. The former was extremely strong across the aisle, while the latter was often contentious, especially when Democrats felt they were denied a fair shot legislatively.

While aides from both parties said the two sides’ floor staffs still get along well, they acknowledge there is little relationship between the top House offices beyond the daily floor activity, scheduling and the very rare discussions on legislation. Pelosi Chief of Staff George Crawford and Hastert Chief of Staff Scott Palmer deal with each other, but only when they have to, several sources said.

“There’s not a lot of direct contact,” said one Democratic leadership aide, adding that the relationship between the two could be characterized as “cordial and respectful.”

The one instance this Congress when the two sides have really had to work together was on the resolution expressing support for the troops immediately following the beginning of the war with Iraq.

Those negotiations were handled by Pelosi and DeLay, and while the resolution ended up passing, 392-11, both sides came away from the table critical of the other.

On the troops resolution, one senior Democratic Member said Pelosi could have worked quickly with Hastert in accepting the Senate version of the bill, but DeLay stood in the way.

“She was clearly trying to say, ‘Let’s put ourselves above politics on this one,’” said the Member.

But Republicans tell a decidedly different story about the evolution of the troops resolution. They say the negotiations weren’t really the problem so much as Pelosi’s difficulty in persuading recalcitrant Democrats to line up behind it.

“The problem was that she couldn’t get everybody on their side on board,” said a GOP aide familiar with the negotiations. “I think the interaction on the staff level went very well.”

One early hang-up was the debate over whether the resolution would express support for “the president,” which the Democrats balked at, or “the president as commander-in-chief,” which ended up being the actual wording.

Republican aides said they yielded on the point early in the process, but were nonetheless dismayed by what they saw as pettiness on the part of the Democrats.

The experience clearly did not bond the two lawmakers or their staffs the way it could have.

“Pelosi doesn’t trust DeLay at all,” said the Democratic Member. “I think she looks at DeLay in the context of a political animal, with no institutional respect [for him]. … I think [the relationship] will get worse, not better. Things will be done with each side working in opposition to the other one.”

Said one senior House Democratic aide: “They want to Newt Gingrich her the way they did to [DeLay]. I don’t think they trust her and I don’t think they have any common ground.”

But Pelosi allies deny any strife, arguing the two admire one another and have a history, having served together for years on the Appropriations panel.

“Obviously on a personal level they have respect for each other,” said a source close to Pelosi, noting that DeLay attended her swearing-in ceremony a year ago when she was elected Minority Whip and has called her a “formidable opponent.”

Pelosi said she considers herself to have a “good working relationship with my colleagues.”

“We’ve worked together over the years on many issues,” she said. “Our relationship predated our leadership roles. I think it is respectful, recognizing fully we have very serious differences of opinion.”

‘Natural Affinity’ With Hoyer

The interaction between Hoyer and his Republican counterparts has been both more frequent and more positive.

“I have a good relationship with a lot of the leaders on the Republican side,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, I have a high percentage of support from our party, but I do have a good working relationship [with Republicans] and would be surprised if they didn’t feel they could pick up the phone and tell me what they think.”

Republicans generally echoed Hoyer’s assessment.

“There’s more natural affinity with Steny than there was with [ex-Minority Whip David] Bonior [D-Mich.] or Frost,” said a Republican Member close to the leadership.

Hoyer, a political centrist, is often viewed as the go-to Democrat for many Republicans on institutional and procedural matters, given his longstanding work on House administration matters. Hoyer and DeLay, in particular, worked for years together on plotting strategy to pass Member pay raises — and are often seen as allies on institutional issues.

“They both have a history of working on issues that affect quality of life for Members,” said a Republican staffer.

Hoyer served as the ranking member on the House Administration Committee until he ascended to Whip in January and is a longtime appropriator, as was DeLay before he got his new post.

Since starting as Whip, Hoyer has also sought to strengthen his relationship with Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), with whom he now holds regular meetings to discuss policy and avenues for working together.

“Congressman Blunt and Congressman Hoyer are friends,” said Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor. “They try to have lunch about every month.”

The two lawmakers knew each other before either entered elected leadership, and their relationship was cemented when they worked closely together on election-reform legislation in the previous Congress.

Hoyer admits to having developed a relationship with all three Republican leaders, but adds that at the same time “we have very substantial disagreements” and isn’t at all reluctant to challenge the other side of the aisle.

“They have their agenda, which is not to help us and not to help me,” Hoyer said.

One GOP leadership aide said that, as would be expected, Republicans often don’t trust Hoyer’s motives, but that “if he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”

Republican Members and aides admit that they have been impressed so far with how Hoyer has built up his Whip operation. They offered specific praise for his performance in mustering opposition to the fiscal 2004 budget resolution, which passed last month by just three votes and actually looked as though it might fail at one point.

“There is some grudging praise of the Hoyer Whip organization,” said a Republican leadership aide. “It seems stronger and better organized” than previous Democratic efforts.

Overall, both parties agreed that it will be some time before either side will feel truly comfortable with each other.

“You just have these patches where things are either going well or not,” said the source close to Hastert. “You need to go through battle together and develop that trust.”