For Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, usually one of the supporting actors on Congress's stage, this was his first role as leading man.

Hoyer spent months overseeing legislation that would ban discrimination against the disabled, and last week his House colleagues passed it overwhelmingly.

As network television cameras looked on, Hoyer was greeted by cheers and applause from disabled people and their lobbyists, who called the bill the most important civil rights act passed since 1964.

"If it weren't for Steny," said Patrisha Wright, chief lobbyist for a coalition of disability-rights groups, "we would not be talking a major victory today."

Hoyer is no stranger to the limelight. He is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-ranking job among his chamber's Democrats, and a member of the influential Appropriations Committee. But this was his first time taking the lead on such a major national issue.

"When I get money for Metro or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, there's nobody there cheering you on," said Hoyer, a longtime Prince George's County politician.

"That's sort of expected of me. It's particularly gratifying to be successful on this."

During nine years in the House, Hoyer has established himself as a consummate political insider.

His job as caucus chairman is long on politics and short on ideology: He brokers compromises, assembles coalitions and monitors the collective mood of his Democratic colleagues.

He initially took up the disabilities-rights legislation because of friendship, not philosophy. Its original sponsor was Rep. Tony Coelho, who resigned from the House last June after questions were raised about his personal financial dealings.

Coelho cares deeply about the bill, in part because he has epilepsy. As he left Congress, Coelho asked Hoyer to step in.

"This was going to be a tough bill because it inconveniences a lot of people," Coelho said. "I needed somebody to replace me as a driver, a well-respected insider. Steny was the first person I went to."

But as the proposal's House sponsor, Hoyer entered an arena in which the philosophical and financial conflicts were sharp.

Despite what one lobbyist called the bill's "motherhood-and-apple-pie appearance," it encompassed several politically volatile issues, such as safeguarding the rights of people with AIDS and recovering drug addicts. There was also determined opposition among business organizations worried about lawsuits and the cost of compliance.

Before the fight was over, Hoyer had bruised the feelings of some of the bill's opponents; one business lobbyist says "we were not listened to."

Hoyer also displayed uncharacteristic passion, at one point taking the House floor to denounce an effort to weaken protections for people infected with the AIDS virus as "the Jim Crow amendment of 1990."

In battling for the bill, he made some new friends as well.

Lobbyist Wright said that when Hoyer took over management of the legislation, "I was concerned . . . because he was never one of the people I turned to historically on civil rights issues. But I quickly learned I was in good hands." Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Hoyer brought "tremendous procedural knowledge and tremendous commitment" to the bill.

Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) said that Hoyer's high-profile advocacy was noticed by his House colleagues.

"Because people who gravitate toward leadership are usually generalists, Steny has not been identified with a particular issue," Fazio said. "The Americans with Disabilities Act has become his issue."

Hoyer said, "Historically, I have been perceived to be a good politician, someone who knows how to work the system or work the community. "I have not been perceived to be issue-oriented."

Hoyer built his reputation in the House by being what he calls "a nuts-and-bolts, institutional, in-house" person. Columnist Christopher Matthews, who was the top aide to former speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., calls Hoyer one of the House's "shop stewards."

According to House members and lobbyists, Hoyer's negotiating skills were crucial in guiding the disabilities bill.

When Hoyer took over the bill, it had passed the Senate and been endorsed by President Bush. But critics, particularly conservative Republicans, contended that little thought had been given to the measure's legal and financial ramifications. And because of its scope, the bill faced a difficult trip through four House committees.

To simplify the process, Hoyer spent months negotiating with Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.), who considered the bill too expensive and so vague that it would spawn tons of lawsuits. Late last year they produced a compromise that drew widespread bipartisan support. The bill then moved smoothly through all four committees and passed the House with only 20 votes in opposition.

Bartlett calls Hoyer "the most formidable adversary and most reliable ally I've ever encountered. The concepts of this bill were easy but getting the right words to accomplish them were tough . . . . He had an understanding of the politics of the issue without being slavish to politics."

The bill bears the marks of legislative give-and-take.

When Bartlett and other Republicans complained that the cost of making buildings accessible to the disabled might bankrupt small businesses, language was added requiring only "readily achievable" changes.

Hoyer said he sought to understand the objections of the bill's opponents, visiting a grocery store and riding an Amtrak train to listen to objections. Then, according to many of those involved, he was able to modify the measure to reconcile widely varying viewpoints.

Nancy Fulco of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Hoyer "was trying to serve a constituency in the disability community, but he always made himself available to us to listen. We did disagree, but our arguments were reasonable."

A few differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill remain to be worked out, but the bill could become law by the end of June.

His work on the legislation may benefit Hoyer in the House. "Inside the institution, people can see him as a substantive person," Coelho said.

But it could make additional work for him as well. "The highest compliment I can give him," Wright said, "is that I will ask him to sponsor additional bills in the future."