After years of rivalry and six months into a new Democratic majority, lawmakers, aides and sources on and off Capitol Hill say the state of the union between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is strong.
While the two Democrats have spent the better part of the past decade as actual or potential leadership competitors, multiple sources cited November’s Majority Leader race — in which Pelosi backed Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) against Hoyer — as perhaps the last battle in the long-running rivalry, despite some lingering tensions among their staffs and allies.
“I think they are doing a very good job. There is a lot of evidence of coordination and cooperation, particularly in the way we’ve handled the Iraq situation, and moving us forward with a minimum of bruised feelings,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). “I think they’ve carved out their roles. … Hoyer complements her, they are a good team.”
“She can’t beat him, it’s that simple,” noted one liberal lawmaker who supported Hoyer in the race, “Now it’s almost like a love affair, he finally won her over,” the lawmaker quipped.
Pelosi’s unanimous support for Speaker and Hoyer’s decisive victory over Murtha sealed their respective standings in the House. “Nancy Pelosi is the undisputed Speaker of the House and Steny Hoyer is the undisputed Majority Leader,” observed a lawmaker allied with Hoyer, noting they no longer present any threat to the other’s rank in the Caucus.
The only Member who appears to hold on to lingering resentments from the Majority Leader race is Murtha, who remains a close ally of Pelosi but whose relationship with Hoyer is nonexistent, according to multiple sources close to both men interviewed for this story. Murtha, in a brief interview last week, was asked about Pelosi and Hoyer’s relationship.
“All last year was a different story,” Murtha said. “But I think it’s going a bit better now.” He declined to comment further.
Hoyer similarly declined to comment on his relationship with Murtha in an interview Monday. “It’s a delicate question. I think I will demur,” Hoyer said.
While many rank-and-file Democrats acknowledged that shortly after the race there were concerns that lasting grudges would tar their ability to run the House, both Pelosi and Hoyer have made noticeable efforts to put those concerns to rest. “I think people feel that those fears were misplaced,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).
For Hoyer’s part, most lawmakers noted he has deferred to Pelosi in public and private on most matters. A Democratic aide tied to Hoyer said he set the tone for their working relationship at the press conference immediately after he won the leadership race. “I intend to do everything in my power, as I said in the Caucus, to make Nancy Pelosi the most successful Speaker in the history of the House of Representatives,” Hoyer said then.
“I think that was really important for the Caucus to hear,” the aide said. “They were saying, ‘We like you Nancy, but we like Steny, too, and he’s earned it.’ He did not over-read the vote.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said Hoyer was smart to make clear in the beginning that Pelosi was the leader of the Democrats and he would play a supporting role. “Steny understands that Nancy is the leader. I think Steny is a very smart elected official and he knew what he was doing. I think Nancy appreciated it,” he said. “The whole time I’ve been in Congress I’ve never heard him say anything negative about Nancy Pelosi, ever.”
Concerns also were raised after the leadership race that Pelosi and her inner circle would seek retribution against Members who weren’t with Murtha in the race. “It remains to be seen whether all their wishes for committee assignments will be fulfilled,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) told Roll Call in November regarding freshman lawmakers.
Yet Pelosi appears to have gone in the opposite direction, working to keep everyone in the fold.
“She sent me a typed letter on the work I had done on my first bill and she wrote a very nice note on the bottom of it saying how proud she was of the work I did on the floor for two days and how nice it was to move my first bill. It means a lot,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), an Appropriations cardinal and liberal lawmaker who supported Hoyer and whipped votes for his leader bid. “She’s never shown me any indifference. She’s very supportive of me, she’s very friendly, she seems to enjoy that I’m the chairman of a committee as much as I enjoy it. So no, not at all.”
One knowledgeable Democratic source noted that Pelosi sent the message to her loyalists, including Moran, to “stop bashing Hoyer” after the race was over.
Hoyer acknowledged that he and Pelosi made concerted actions to assuage the Caucus. “I think it was a conscious effort, and it was also what we had to do,” Hoyer said, “I think we needed to not only have people perceive us as working together but to actually be working together.”
Different Roles, Bases
The Iraq War has presented the most significant test of the Democratic leadership team so far in their majority, as they attempt to end the war in the face of strong opposition from House Republicans and the White House. Each draws on support from different ideological factions within the Democratic Caucus, and they have relied on that support to keep the Caucus together as the House is set to take up another war supplemental in September.
“She continues to have an incredibly effective reach to the left, he has a unique and strong reach to the middle and right,” said one former leadership aide. “That was important to keep unity in the minority, but now it’s critical in order to govern.”
A Member in the Blue Dog Coalition, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Pelosi made a key decision when she allowed the Iraq War supplemental to come to the floor earlier this year despite her personal opposition to the measure. Hoyer, who has large military installations in his district, voted for the bill. The Blue Dog called it “a sign of political maturity” that Pelosi was willing to do that.
Whether the Caucus can stick together indefinitely on the war between factions that are growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress is uncertain. “The war is a continuing problem,” the Blue Dog said.
While Pelosi almost singularly drives the agenda and vision of the House, Hoyer at times also has to balance advancing the Speaker’s agenda and working with the committee chairmen on their policy goals; he meets weekly with the chairmen in his office.
Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) are currently engaged in a policy dispute over raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.
Hoyer — who, unlike Pelosi, has a close relationship with Dingell — told reporters last week that he expected any final energy bill to have CAFE standards included, and he said Monday that he believes that they can ultimately agree on CAFE language Dingell will support. “My job is clearly to work with the chairman so they feel comfortable and that their view is being listened to,” Hoyer said.
Still, it would be a stretch to say that Pelosi and Hoyer have become suddenly chummy, or that all of the ice has thawed. “I don’t think that anybody thinks of them as cozy,” said a Democratic tied to Hoyer. “It’s not a cozy relationship.”
Added an aide tied to Pelosi: “They’re not going to be best buddies but they work well together.”
Some Members observed that, at times, their staffs continue to spar, tussle and defend each camp’s turf behind the scenes, but the disagreements largely have been tactical, not over broad strategy or goals.
Ruppersberger observed that their respective staffs are sometimes wary of each other. “They’re very protective of their boss.”
A senior Democratic aide not affiliated with either office noted that the two camps are working better now than in the months leading up to the leadership election, and perhaps better than they ever did in the minority on a staff-level. “I think everyone was so overwhelmed [in January] when we took over the House that there was a general realization that ‘We don’t have time for this s–t anymore,’” said the aide.
Pelosi’s chief of staff, John Lawrence, and Hoyer’s chief of staff, Terry Lierman, meet weekly to plot strategy, and Brendan Daly, communications director for Pelosi, noted that the Speaker and Hoyer have worked to have a successful record on a number of the Democrats’ priorities so far.
“I think they complement each other very well, they talk to Members all the time to build unity,” he said, “I think we’ve seen that in a number of different votes and especially in the first 100 hours where we had significant support, including Republican support, on most of our bills.
Daly added: “For four years they worked well together when we were in the minority and I think they realized that they have to step it up even more in the majority and they have.”
Staff tensions are still apparent at times. In one of the Democrats’ biggest missteps to date, the leadership approved a plan by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to delay disclosure of earmarks until after the bills passed the House. That plan handed Republicans an easy public relations win and tied the House in knots for the better part of a week until Democrats were forced to abandon it.
Hoyer, who has long had better relations with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, negotiated the deal with Republicans that ended the impasse, while Pelosi remained largely out of sight. Though both offices said they originally signed off on the Obey plan, there was criticism lobbed between offices as well as from the rank-and-file during the standoff that at one point led to a complete floor shutdown.
Hoyer characterized the episode as a “glitch” and acknowledged that leadership should have been more strategic in anticipating the GOP’s moves, and expects them to be in the future. “We got called on it, and we changed it, and we probably should’ve anticipated better.”
Hoyer noted that he and Pelosi share the same overarching goal for a successful Democratic majority. “I can’t be successful without Nancy and I like to think Nancy can’t be as successful without me,” he said.