The foremost question in Washington — whether there will be a government shutdown — hinges on the ability of three men to cut a deal: President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
But even if those three manage to agree on a spending bill, the House’s top two Democrats — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) — may not. And neither they nor many of the rank-and-file lawmakers they lead seem particularly bothered by that possibility.
The fact that Hoyer and Pelosi could again part ways on a continuing resolution, just as they did on the last two that passed the House, shows the real policy differences that persist between the two leaders, despite a working partnership that is now in its ninth year. And it illustrates the unique role Hoyer plays in his caucus, as a leader of his party’s moderates who is willing to break with the majority of his fellow Democrats on some issues.
“I think we would all like for them to be on the same page,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). But it’s not surprising, he said, that Pelosi and Hoyer are divided, given that they’re both leaders with strong views.
Hoyer is known as a moderate and a pragmatist — a dealmaker who has friends on the Republican side of the aisle. Pelosi is seen more as a committed liberal, less willing to compromise on ideological issues.
In addition to their policy splits, Hoyer and Pelosi have had their personal differences. Pelosi beat Hoyer in the race for minority whip in 2002, their only head-to-head matchup. In 2006, Pelosi rattled her caucus by supporting then-Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for majority leader over Hoyer, who won the contest decisively. Since then, Pelosi and Hoyer have developed a more productive working relationship, though they are still not known to be close friends.
On the three-week continuing resolution that passed March 15, Hoyer was among 85 Democrats who voted aye, and Pelosi was among 104 who voted no. On the resolution two weeks earlier, Hoyer also voted in favor and Pelosi against, though in that case the majority of Democrats agreed with Hoyer.
“The real key is neither one of those votes was perceived as a key party vote, so the fact that Nancy voted one way and I voted another was not reflective of anything,” Hoyer said in an interview Thursday.
So could the two Democrats split again if there’s a final deal on spending? Hoyer wouldn’t hazard a guess, because the details of such an agreement were unknown.
“I think if it’s a deal the president has signed off on and Reid has signed off on, there will be real pressure on us to agree with that,” Hoyer said. “But I don’t think that means all our members will go along.”
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a former leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she wouldn’t take her cue from either Pelosi or Hoyer.
“For progressives, we have our own compass. We don’t wait for either one of them,” she said.
But Woolsey said it was also important for Democrats to stick together in this fight, and “together means we don’t buy into some kind of compromise that hurts seniors, children and the most vulnerable.”
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the progressive caucus, said, “The fact that we have our leaders going in different directions isn’t such a concern to me, as long as when we get to the final crunch,” Hoyer and Pelosi agree.
At the same time, Grijalva said, “it makes it harder to make the contrast [with Republicans] when our leadership and some of our colleagues are supporting it. It makes it harder than it should be.”
But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a veteran lawmaker who is close to Pelosi, said the final bill would pass largely based on Republican support, regardless of how Democratic leaders voted.
“In the scheme of things, it doesn’t really make a difference,” Waxman said.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) agreed.
“The bottom line is that Democrats are not going to get a better deal than what Obama and Reid settle for,” Sherman said, though Pelosi and other lawmakers “may feel free to cast a protest vote” if they know the agreement to fund the government will pass anyway.
The nature of Hoyer’s Maryland district, which includes a portion of Prince George’s County and stretches to the southern tip of St. Mary’s County, might give him extra motivation to do whatever he feels he can to avoid a shutdown. More than 62,000 federal employees live in his district, according to numbers compiled by the National Treasury Employees Union, the second-highest total in the country.
“I think I certainly have an incentive to keep the government open, but we all have an incentive to keep the government open, because the biggest effect is not on federal employees,” Hoyer said. “Frankly, the entire economy will be adversely affected, and all Americans will be adversely affected.”
Hoyer and Pelosi have occasionally split in the past on important policy issues, including funding for the Iraq war and the package of tax-cut extensions that passed in December, both of which Hoyer supported. But they have stuck together on most others, including the health-care law passed last year and the long-term spending bill Republicans passed in February.
More important, they have kept each other apprised of their plans. Each knew how the other would vote on the last two continuing resolutions, Hoyer said, and they have spoken regularly about the next potential vote.
Similarly, rank-and-file lawmakers seem not to mind so much if Hoyer and Pelosi split their vote, as long as they tell their caucus why they’re doing so.
“Each member has to do what’s right for himself,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), “but when you’re in a leadership position you have a greater responsibility to explain your vote.”