Congressional Conflicts: Can Hoyer Bridge the Gap?
Policy + Politics

Congressional Conflicts: Can Hoyer Bridge the Gap?

TFT Staff

With Republicans taking control of the House and liberals in control of the Democratic caucus, incoming minority whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., may be the only one in a position to bridge the gap between emboldened progressives, moderate Democrats, and Republicans on spending and tax issues.

Demoralized and fractious House Democrats agreed this week to stick with liberal Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the once powerful speaker, as their leader next year. With liberals at the top of the leadership pyramid, 71-year-old Hoyer with roots in the more moderate wing of the party, has both deficit-hawk leanings and an ear for the wishes of his caucus.

Hoyer, who is currently Majority Leader, on Thursday championed a key plank in the liberal Democrats’ platform, agreeing to hold a vote on extending tax cuts only for the middle class while denying an extension of the cuts to families that make more than $250,000 annually. “We cannot afford to add $700 billion [to the deficit] to benefit the wealthiest Americans with almost no economic benefit, as Republicans want to do,” he said.

Also on Thursday, after Republicans blocked an extension of unemployment benefits, another Democratic priority, Hoyer signaled a willingness to keep working with them. While he criticized their votes to deny extension of the payments, he didn’t shut the door to negotiations. “We will keep working to address the extension of unemployment insurance when Congress returns to session on the week of November 29th," he said.

Hoyer is the only leader with the bona fides to make deals on the budget and deficit.  Pelosi, D-Calif., has rejected out of hand the recommendations of the co-chairs of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission, and is a lightning rod for conservatives. Hoyer, who earlier praised Obama for setting up the commission, declined to criticize the chairs’ recommendations, and is keeping his powder dry on the issue.

In addition, he has a good relationship with the few remaining middle-of-the-road “Blue Dog” Democrats in the increasingly liberal House Democratic caucus, who will be key to any deal-making. They believe voters in the recent election sent Democrats a message that they were dissatisfied with their leadership. Hoyer, understated and working behind the scenes, provides a counterpoint to Pelosi.

Pelosi’s visibility and Republican vilification cost her the support of 43 of her own House members who voted for Rep. Heath Schuler, D-N.C.,for minority leader. (She won with 150 votes.) Hoyer, meanwhile, cut a deal for Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to remain as the No. 3 Democratic leader with a new position “assistant leader,” defusing a contest between them for whip.

Hoyer sometimes speaks in terms that resonate with Republicans. In June, he shook up the Democratic establishment with a speech in which he called for raising the Social Security retirement age gradually, and carefully considering the recommendations of the president’s Fiscal Commission.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio., who will be the  new speaker, had raised similar points about Social Security. After Hoyer’s speech, there was a brief flurry of bipartisanship between the two leaders before their respective parties went back to pummeling each other in the election campaign

After the Democrats met to choose their leaders, Hoyer was the only one to raise the issues of trade, budget and the deficit. He insisted that Democratic leaders would hold Republicans to their pledges of fiscal austerity. “We will be ever vigilant to keep Republicans’ to their rhetoric on fiscal balance and growing jobs,” he said.

“The message of the election was to get the economy moving again, there aren’t enough jobs,” he told The Fiscal Times after the leadership caucus. “They want more fiscal balance. They want us to return to 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton, when we had a balanced budget, a surplus and an economy that was producing a million jobs.”

That’s not something the Democrats can accomplish on their own, but Hoyer signaled a willingness to work with GOP leaders “to achieve solutions if they are willing to work with us.” Hoyer has “good people skills and respect on the other side of the aisle,” which should help bridge the gap, said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, a fellow Maryland Democrat.

Hoyer is “a little more fiscally conservative than Nancy” and a “stronger supporter of international trade,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., adding that the two make a good team. As for addressing the deficit, he said the Democrats and Congress “have to do something about something. We just can’t keep kicking that can down the road.”

With funding running out for government agencies by the end of the year, Congress has to pass either a short-term continuing resolution to keep government going at current funding levels, or an “omnibus” spending bill that some Republican members would like in order to make overall budget cuts. The most likely scenario at week’s end was the continuing resolution, congressional aides said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., fresh off the loss of more than 60 Democratic seats as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now gets to be ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, where he says he wants to “continue the great debate on how to kick our economy into high gear.” He says he’s willing to compromise, but “where we have differences, we will make them known,” all with an eye to fiscal responsibility and fiscal discipline.

That may be hard to accomplish in a Democratic caucus that is more liberal than ever — those who thought the stimulus package was too timid and who insist that unemployment benefits be extended. And Van Hollen will be up against the GOP’s Budget star, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose controversial budget “roadmap,” which calls for steep cuts in Medicare and a revamping of Social Security, has been an easy target for Democrats.

In the Senate, where Democrats are still nominally in charge though with a diminished majority, leaders are looking at outreach as well. Senate Democrats chose Sen. Mark Begich, R-Alaska, to head their Steering and Policy Committee, with an eye towards embracing dissident constituent groups, including those dissatisfied with the budget and deficit stances of the Democrats.

In an interview, Begich said he sees his job as one of seeking out various factions — moderates, liberals and conservatives. “Groups that like the Democratic caucus, groups that don’t like the Democratic caucus,” he said. “I want to make a list to find where we need to go to find the issues where people are concerned about us.”