Don’t be fooled by Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer’s claims that he isn’t interested in his party’s House Whip position if current whip, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, decides to run again for the post next winter after the November elections. What he really wants is to get another shot at her after his bitter defeat at her hands last year. In fact Hoyer went public last week to announce that he has lined up 141 votes from his Democratic colleagues, including the votes of 39 Democrats who backed Pelosi last time out. The 141 figure, if accurate, would give Hoyer more than enough votes to defeat Pelosi or anyone else for the No. 2 spot in the House Democratic leadership.
All of this jockeying is the result of Democratic presidential politics: specifically the aspirations of current party leader Dick Gephardt, who is running for re-election in the House, but is expected to step aside as leader next winter to pursue his dreams of moving into the Big House. Those plans, too, could change if the Democrats through some political miracle or Republican ineptitude (the latter is always a distinct possibility) regain a House majority. “It would be tough for Gephardt to turn down the speakership of the House, to just walk away from that,” says a Republican leadership source. “No House member could do that. It’s amusing, though, watching them all line up for jobs they think they are going to get because they lost the election.”
Hoyer lost a very tight, bitter race for House Whip last year to Pelosi. Both tried to put a gloss on it, but Democrats in the House were surprised by how aggressively the two longtime members went at each other, badmouthing one another to colleagues, cutting deals on campaign donations from PACs, and making long-term promises for committee assignments. Pelosi won in part because of her liberal leanings and fundraising acumen. Immediately she was tabbed as a future party leader should Gephardt step down. Hoyer simply boiled at the notion of his nemesis gaining that kind of power. “The Whip election really set him off,” says a longtime Hoyer supporter in his Maryland district. “It bothered him that she was seemingly able to climb over him for a job he was in line for, and worse, that supposed friends like Gephardt would let it happen.”
Hoyer’s bitterness about losing to Pelosi is a bit of mystery. After all, he’d lost a race for whip before, in 1991, to David Bonior. That defeat he took in stride, perhaps because he assumed his time would come again.
This time around, according to the Maryland supporter, Hoyer has closely monitored Pelosi’s performance and her support inside the Democratic Caucus, and feels certain that regardless of what happens with Gephardt he could beat her straight up.
“She has not been a successful Whip, she’s been outmaneuvered at every turn by the Republicans. They’ve just rolled over us here in the House,” says a Democratic House member who backed Hoyer last time. “We should be fighting more, and that ‘s her job. To get us fighting.” This House member feels certain that if Pelosi should run for Whip again, Hoyer would challenge. “He’s in.”
Pelosi’s future is clouded, in part, because Hoyer friend and political ally Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas announced two months ago that he would run for party leader if the job opens. Frost is, at least cosmetically, a more moderate Democrat than Pelosi, and probably right now doesn’t have the votes to beat her for leader in the liberal-minded caucus. But as Pelosi’s political stock continues to slip, Frost hopes to rally enough support to force her into a decision she does not want to make: run for leader and lose for sure or run for Whip again and maybe still win. “And if she does run for Whip, Hoyer is there with that wolfish grin, licking his chops,” says a House Republican leadership aide.
Interestingly, Hoyer’s confidence that he can take on Pelosi and win seems girded by a former Pelosi ally, former Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, who has been advising Hoyer since his loss to Pelosi. Coelho’s presence on the Hill with Hoyer has surprised some longtime Democrats. “I don’t know what Pelosi did to piss off Tony, but it must have been a doozy, because I wouldn’t have expected a former leader to jump into the something like this,” says the House Democratic leadership staffer.
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