The best of times

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - With its red and blue lights flashing, Steny H. Hoyer's burly, black Chevy Suburban hurtles through the streets of the capital, taking him to old places in new ways.

For the first time since the Maryland Democrat assumed his influential role as House majority leader, he's able to sit down at the White House with a president from his own party.

"I get along very well with President Obama," Hoyer said in an interview. "He is a very easy guy to work with, very thoughtful, very open to suggestions."

Hoyer came to Congress in 1981 after gaining prominence in Annapolis. But until now, for all his time in Washington, he had served in the majority with a Democratic president for only two years, during Bill Clinton's first term.

These days, "Steny loves what he's doing. He loves life," said Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, a close friend and colleague of more than 40 years.

It is a life that only a workaholic lawmaker could adore. His routine tracks the legislative calendar, which he directs in his role as traffic cop for the House of Representatives.

When Congress is in town, his security detail picks him up at his Washington apartment at 7 a.m. Less than 10 minutes later, he's in his princely suite of offices on the main floor of the Capitol, which looks out at the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

With luck, his workday will end about 14 hours later. By Hoyer's admission, it is not always a glamorous existence.

"The good news is, I'm a pretty simple eater, and I like Dinty Moore stew or Hormel chili or Campbell's clam chowder," said Hoyer, 69, whose wife died in 1997. "A lot of times, I'll go home and fix a frozen meal."

It is still early in Obama's term, but there have been an unusual number of invitations to the White House. Circulating through the East Room at the signing of a children's health care bill this month, he was able to introduce two of his policy aides to the president.

Hoyer has connections throughout the new administration. Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the second-most powerful man in the White House, "is a very close friend of mine," Hoyer said.

At a West Wing meeting with Obama and leaders of Congress a few weeks back, Hoyer poked fun at Emanuel, wisecracking that the presidential aide is too busy to take his phone calls now, so he has to call the president instead.

The inside joke referred to an incident during the transition, when Hoyer got through to Emanuel while the former Chicago congressman was riding in a car with Obama.

"Rahm, just because he thought it was a neat thing to do," handed the phone to Obama, who said, " 'Mr. Emanuel is busy and he asked me to speak to you.' We ended up talking for about 10 minutes and then they got to the hotel and he said, 'We've got to go now. ... I'll have Rahm call you,' " Hoyer recalled. "Bottom line is, Rahm didn't call."

Hoyer has close ties to other senior administration officials, including Budget Director Peter R. Orszag and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who recently appeared with Hoyer and Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore at an event in Laurel to promote the economic stimulus package).

Alejandro Perez, who used to schedule the legislative agenda as a Hoyer aide, is now a lobbyist for the White House. Another former aide, John Berry, is expected to be appointed as director of the Office of Personnel Management. That would give Hoyer a direct line to the top of the independent agency overseeing the federal work force, a valuable connection for his 5th District, which has one of the highest concentrations of federal workers in the country.

For decades, his contacts and hard work have helped Hoyer bring federal dollars home to Maryland and to the capital region where he has spent most of his life. Now, perhaps in keeping with Obama's "no-earmarks" ethic, he seems wary of claiming credit.

Asked recently if the $787 billion stimulus package bore his fingerprints, Hoyer replied, "No." But aides said later that he played a role in providing money for firehouse construction (the International Association of Fire Fighters is among the most politically active unions in the country), $250 for every federal retiree not covered by Social Security (Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Richard E. Neal, both Massachusetts Democrats, and perhaps others, also claimed credit), $1 billion for the Census Bureau, which has its headquarters in Suitland, and $25 million for the Smithsonian Institution.

His inside job - keeping fractious Democrats in line on key House votes - meshes with another top priority: tending the political needs of his congressional base - the 255 House Democrats who re-elected him as their leader.

Hoyer typically hits a half-dozen fundraising events on an average Washington night. When his colleagues return to their districts, Hoyer sometimes goes along.

This week, his campaign travels included a stop in upstate New York, where Democrats are hoping to retain the House seat vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate. His political action committee, which funneled more than $2.6 million from lobbyists, special-interest groups and individual donors to help elect Democratic candidates to the House in the last election, is the largest "leadership" PAC in either house of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The longest-serving congressman in Maryland history, Hoyer is firmly established as the No. 2 leader in the House, a job he spent a quarter-century preparing for. His rivalry with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has settled into a manageable groove.

Pelosi, who once worked beside him as a twentysomething Senate intern, has the position that Hoyer sought. The Baltimore-born Pelosi is a year younger and shows no sign of giving up her post as the first female speaker.

Those who know Hoyer say he has accommodated himself to the situation and is realistic about the possibility that he will never get the job.

Hoyer and Pelosi - he alternates, in conversation with a reporter, between calling her Nancy and the speaker - will never love each other, House insiders say. Capitol reporters, aware of that, never tire of looking for ways to drive a wedge between them.

But more than two years into their current relationship, which began after Hoyer defeated Pelosi's candidate for his job, they are working well together in managing the House.

Pelosi has stronger ties to the party's dominant left wing. Hoyer is the go-to member of the leadership for the Blue Dog conservatives, who could act to block Obama's agenda if the price tag gets too high.

"They get along pretty well, and they get things done," said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist who was a top adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the last Democratic majority leader before Hoyer. "The test of any leadership team is, are you going to accomplish the president's agenda within the time frame in which you are asked to do it?"

On the stimulus package, they succeeded.

Obama's popularity with voters has left Republicans unwilling to make him a personal target of their political attacks.

"There aren't Republicans who want to go after a guy who's got an 80 percent approval rating, African-American, wonderful personality, super smile, all that stuff," Hoyer said.

At the same time, Republicans are helping Hoyer keep House Democrats united, by daring to be seen as the party of "no." Shortly before final House approval of the stimulus package, which every Republican voted against, Hoyer delivered a partisan scolding from the floor of the chamber as members of both parties looked on.

Glaring at the Republican side, Hoyer traced the years of the George W. Bush administration and likened them to the pre-Depression Herbert Hoover era.

"Well, my friends, we did it your way. In 2001, in 2002, in 2003, in 2004, in 2005, 2006, 2007 and in 2008. And we had the worst job performance of any administration since the late 1920s and early 1930s," Hoyer said. "Some would like to stay on the same path, pursuing the same failed policies. The sign of a good person and a good legislator is to say, 'I moved in this direction and it didn't work, and so I'll change directions.' "

Steny H. Hoyer

Age: 69

Hometown: Mechanicsville

Education: Bachelor of Science, University of Maryland; law degree, Georgetown University School of Law

Career: Maryland Senate, 1967-1978; Senate president, 1975-1978; Congress, May 1981-present; became longest-serving member of the House of Representatives from Maryland on June 4, 2007; House Democratic whip, 2003-2007; House majority leader, 2007-present

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