Steny Hoyer collecting liberal support in his bid for minority whip

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:01 PM

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) continued Tuesday to collect high-profile endorsements from his party's liberal wing in his bid to become House minority whip, trying to counter the impression that his candidacy is built around support from moderate-to-conservative Democrats.

Seven Democratic committee chairmen issued a letter Tuesday endorsing Hoyer's candidacy for the No. 2 post in the minority leadership, including three leading liberals: Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman (Calif.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.) and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (Calif.).

Supporters of Hoyer, currently the majority leader, have touted his momentum in his campaign against Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), unveiling a string of key endorsements. With Tuesday's letter, first reported by Politico, Hoyer now has nearly 50 public endorsements, almost half of the roughly 95 supporters he will need to win the secret ballot next week.

Clyburn, currently the majority whip, the No. 3 post in the majority, has about 10 public endorsements but is expected to collect the lion's share of the 40 or so members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He has won some key support, including an endorsement Monday by Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the highest-ranking Latino member of the congressional leadership.

Last week's Republican election victories will result next year in the smallest Democratic caucus since 1948. With life in the minority meaning one less elected leadership position, Hoyer and Clyburn have been thrown into a contest that some have viewed through an ideological prism and that has left Democrats with a difficult choice between two veterans who are, by and large, well liked.

Hoyer has long been the leader with the most trust from Democrats in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and the moderate New Democrat Coalition, while Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in congressional history, is viewed as a staunch liberal.

Eliminating Hoyer from the leadership could be portrayed as a move to the left at a time when independent and centrist voters have fled the Democrats. Eliminating Clyburn could risk angering the Congressional Black Caucus just as President Obama begins ramping up for his 2012 reelection bid and looking to reenergize black voters, who turned out in record numbers in 2008.

Beneath the surface, however, both Hoyer and Clyburn can claim liberal roots. According to annual rankings by the National Journal, Hoyer's voting record last year scored as 83 percent liberal, which made him the 65th most liberal member of the House. Put in context: Among more than 255 Democrats in the 111th Congress, Hoyer was in the most liberal 25 percent.

His voting record is ranked alongside those of Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), currently the No. 4 Democratic leader; Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who founded the Populist Caucus last year; and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the leader of the Progressive Caucus.

Clyburn can claim to be more liberal, based on the National Journal's rankings, which take into account the most important votes of the year. In 2009, he had a 91 percent liberal rating; there were just 13 lawmakers more liberal than Clyburn.

(Notably, in the election year of 2008, both lawmakers voted far more conservatively, with Clyburn rated 79 percent liberal and Hoyer 74 percent, placing them 88th and 124th, respectively, in the liberal rankings.)

With only slight distinctions between Hoyer's and Clyburn's actual voting records, some lawmakers and senior aides favor an approach that would keep both men in the leadership, with Clyburn bumping down to caucus chairman, the No. 3 post next year. That would require Larson to be given a different spot, as well.

But Clyburn has suggested he has no interest in settling for the No. 3 job, telling Politico on Tuesday, "I wouldn't be making calls or talking to these members if I didn't think I could win."

Some liberals say their support for Hoyer is not an ideological litmus test but rather an effort to keep someone at the leadership table who has the implicit trust of the few dozen remaining Blue Dogs and New Democrats. Those lawmakers - who once accounted for a third of the caucus but will be reduced to fewer than 50 after Tuesday's defeats - have an icy relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose support among the liberal ranks of the caucus remains fairly strong.

Pelosi has indicated that she will run to stay on next year as minority leader, a surprise to many, given how forcefully Republicans used her image in their campaigns. Without Hoyer at the leadership table, leading liberals fear that moderate Democrats will ignore Pelosi. Some want to see Hoyer leading the effort to recruit defeated incumbents to run again in 2012, believing the political environment will be better.

"Hoyer is a tested leader who can help Democrats rise to the challenge of the next Congress, protect the interests of the middle class and win back the majority. For those reasons, we support Steny Hoyer as our next Democratic Whip, and we hope that you will do the same," the seven chairmen wrote in their letter.

The leadership shuffle has led another leading House member, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), to set his sights on a different prominent post - the top Democratic slot on the House Budget Committee.

Van Hollen has served for two election cycles as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a job that typically leads to a plum assignment as a reward. He has also been one of the party's most prolific fundraisers, earning goodwill by spreading donations around the caucus.

The current top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), lost his reelection race last week, and Van Hollen has been making calls to fellow Democrats to smooth the way to replace him, according to a source close to the congressman.

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D-Pa.), the Budget Committee vice chair, is backing Van Hollen rather than seeking the top job herself. No other competitors for the position have emerged.

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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