Maryland congressmen Hoyer, Cummings could play key roles in new Democratic House

The Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives positions a pair of Marylanders for influential new roles — one in the leadership and the other as chairman of a committee expected to step up scrutiny of the Trump administration.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, who long eyed the job of speaker if Democrats regained the House, will seek instead to return to the No. 2 role of majority leader, the Southern Maryland lawmaker said Wednesday.

Hoyer isn't the only Maryland delegation member likely on the move. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who won his 13th term, was expected to become chairman of Oversight and Government Reform, the principal investigating committee in the House. The Baltimore Democrat has said his agenda could include exploring policies and practices of the administration of Republican President Donald Trump on prescription drug prices, health insurance for people with pre-existing medical conditions and many other issues.

Democrats surpassed the number of Republican-held seats — 23 — that they needed to flip in Tuesday’s midterm election to claim a majority of the 435, giving them control of the House agenda, the speaker’s office and committees. Republicans maintained Senate control.

Hoyer, 79, was first elected in a 1981 special election and is the longest-serving House member in Maryland history.

He has long been interested in becoming speaker, but he wants to avoid an intra-party skirmish with former speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, sources close to him said.

Pelosi has said she will seek to reclaim her old position.

With Hoyer beside her, Pelosi said at an election-night celebration in Washington that Democrats would use their majority to safeguard health insurance protections and to try to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Hoyer released a statement early Wednesday morning saying he hoped Republicans “will meet us in a spirit of cooperation. While the voters have opted for divided government, divided government does not necessitate division.”

Hoyer has gained favor with Democratic members over the years by traveling around the country to help raise campaign money. Aides said he visited 134 congressional districts in 25 states to assist candidates during the past two years.

But the speakership has eluded him.

"He feels like Prince Charles — you're just not sure he's ever going to get the throne," said Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado-based independent pollster.

Hoyer was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, according to a spokesperson.

From 2007 to 2011, Pelosi, 78, was speaker and Hoyer was majority leader. The majority leader is the party's point person, assessing priorities and managing legislation on the House floor.

Unlike the majority leader, the speaker is an institutional position and must be approved by the whole House, while the majority leader is picked only by party members. The speaker is second in line, behind the vice president, in assuming the presidency if a president cannot serve.

Pelosi — whose father and brother were once Baltimore mayors — is a favorite political target of Republicans, particularly in Trump country. In Maryland's heavily Republican 1st Congressional District, Democratic candidate Jesse Colvin broadcast a campaign ad indicating he would not back Pelosi for speaker if elected.

Colvin lost to Rep. Andy Harris, who remains the only Republican member of Maryland's delegation.

Among House Democrats, Pelosi “has the arguments of raising money and knowing the system,” Ciruli said. While a faction of the party is calling for new leadership, Pelosi might be appreciated for her ability “to rein in an incredibly tough president without making him look sympathetic,” he said.

Other Maryland Democrats said they back Pelosi and Hoyer, with the caveat that the party cultivates the next generation. Democratic members of the state congressional delegation met in Baltimore Wednesday to discuss priorities in the Congress that will begin work in January.

“I think we need to start developing new leaders; we just can't do it overnight,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

“My politics is not Nancy's politics,” Ruppersberger said. “But I think she's a good leader. She's honest and she's from Baltimore. She needs to start working a little more in the next Congress with both sides of the aisle.”

Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County said he also supports Pelosi and Hoyer. Sarbanes, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Democrats will exercise “responsible oversight” over the Trump administration.

Sarbanes said Democrats plan to introduce legislation to reform voting rights, ethics and campaign finance laws.

“If Democrats come out of the gate early with a strong package, it makes a declaration to the public: We're not just going to pretend to drain the swamp, as the president has,” Sarbanes said. “I think the proposal we're pulling together — to do a broad set of democracy reforms — is exactly what the public is looking for.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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