The Baltimore Sun

He's moved into some of the choicest real estate in the U.S. Capitol, all crystal chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors a stone's throw from the rotunda.

He's gotten more publicity in the past six months than during his previous four decades in public life - most of it positive.

But Steny H. Hoyer says the biggest change in his life since Democrats won control of Congress and chose him over a spirited challenger to become House majority leader was the sudden rush of power.

"I used to wake up in the morning and wonder what's going to happen that day," he said during an interview wedged between a dizzying round of meetings, press conferences, floor appearances and phone calls with dignitaries. "Now I wake up in the morning and think about what I want to make happen."

At 67, the congressman from Southern Maryland is savoring the rewards of a lifetime of relentless striving for the top ranks of political leadership - particularly the last dozen years in the cold, dark ineffectuality of the House minority. These are heady, happy days that make all the effort feel worthwhile.

He still can't make just anything happen. There's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be considered - though tensions between the two have eased since she backed the challenger for majority leader and lost.

More restricting is the 232-member Democratic caucus that must produce most, if not all, of the 218 votes needed for any proposal Mr. Hoyer wants to pass. "The caucus is the boss," said Mr. Hoyer, who is extremely sensitive to each Democrat's need to be mindful of constituent sentiment.

Yet Mr. Hoyer makes his influence felt through two key roles. As keeper of the House schedule, he determines what legislation gets a vote, when and often under what rules. He's also emerging as a key party spokesman, making himself more accessible than other leaders to reporters, who appreciate his tendency to be more candid than coy.

On Wednesday, hours before the House failed to override President Bush's veto of the Iraq spending bill and Mr. Hoyer joined a group of leaders at the White House to launch negotiations, he was already signaling the likely shape of a compromise.

As for personal causes, Mr. Hoyer lists House passage of a bill extending congressional voting rights to the District of Columbia as a get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning-and-make-it-happen accomplishment.

Democrats haven't kept their promise to give the Republican minority a larger role in the process than Democrats had. "We promised to be fair, not stupid," Mr. Hoyer observed. In fact, his biggest frustration so far is that minority rights in the Senate allowed Republicans to stall all the signature measures House Democrats passed during their first weeks in charge.

Power is almost inevitably corrupting, which is part of why the pendulum of control swings back and forth between the two parties. Meanwhile, Mr. Hoyer has been able to beef up his staff with policy aides his payroll couldn't accommodate before. He's trying to expand his impact on issues such as genocide in Darfur.

Fulfilling this sort of ambition wouldn't be everyone's version of nirvana. Long hours and frequent travel have always taken a toll on Mr. Hoyer's personal life. His wife, Judy, watching her husband struggle through a '60s karaoke performance some years ago, explained that he was so consumed with politics, even as a teenager, he didn't have time to learn the words to popular songs. Since her death in 1997, he has ramped up the work level even higher, and now can't even find time for golf - his one hobby.

But as Mr. Hoyer reflects on his metamorphosis from a skinny twentysomething knocking on doors in his first state Senate race, to a thin-skinned manipulator who helped build in Prince George's County Maryland's last political machine, to one of the most powerful figures on Capitol Hill, he seems almost surprised that he pulled it off.

And this phase has just begun. Now he has a chance to make something really important happen.

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