The Republican takeover of Congress and resulting Democratic shake-up have positioned Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D) to become the second-ranking minority leader in the House, which would give a Washington area lawmaker a senior leadership post for the first time since 1919.
With a vote planned for next week -- triggered by the decision of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) not to seek another term as minority leader. Hoyer, 63, remains uncontested in his third try for minority whip.
The decisive GOP victory in the Senate will reverse the effects of the Democratic takeover 18 months ago, with Virginia Republicans reclaiming an influential committee chairmanship and Maryland Democrats giving up another. Virginia Sen. John W. Warner (R), elected Tuesday to a fifth term, will retake the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee as the Pentagon and defense contractors prepare for possible military action against Iraq.
Veteran Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) loses the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairmanship -- the apex of a 26-year Senate career -- from which he championed corporate reform and led the Democratic pursuit of Securities and Exchange Chairman Harvey L. Pitt, who resigned Tuesday.
Despite setbacks for Democrats, Hoyer's promotion would give an area lawmaker the most potentially important power base in Congress since arch-conservative Rep. "Judge" Howard W. Smith (D) of Alexandria bottled up civil rights and labor legislation as head of the House Rules Committee from 1955 to 1966.
"I think the responsibility of Democrats in the House needs to be to stay on principle, not on message," said Hoyer, a pro-defense centrist and Gephardt loyalist who helped lead passage of election reform legislation this year.
Hoyer, a relentless backroom negotiator yet collegial figure, raised $1.3 million for Democratic candidates for the 2002 elections and campaigned in 22 races as part of a perpetual push for the leadership job. Yesterday, his office announced public pledges of support from 175 House Democrats, or 80 percent of the caucus.
In the job, Hoyer would head the internal party vote-counting operation and help construct House Democratic positions on subjects ranging from health care and prescription drug coverage for seniors to the economy and federal budget deficit.
"From the regional standpoint, we are going to continue to work together on bipartisan initiatives regarding federal employees, transportation and appropriations," said Hoyer, who represents Prince George's County and Southern Maryland and whose most visible legislative accomplishments are this year's election reforms and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Local members also are in position to take new perches of power overseeing the nation's defenses as the country fights the war on terrorism and prepares for war in Iraq.
Virginia is especially reliant on military spending, with several bases and the Newport News shipyard, the state's biggest private employer. The Defense Department spends $30 billion a year in the Old Dominion, elevating federal spending to the second-highest per-capita of any state, at $10,067.
Warner expressed confidence that the Navy's $10 billion, next-generation aircraft carrier project will remain on schedule to start construction in Hampton Roads in 2007. A senior aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had suggested a postponement this year, a move that could cripple a critical economic engine for the state.
Warner said he had spoken to Rumsfeld twice in the last day and was encouraged by the secretary's recent statements. "I anticipate as the budget request comes up it will be consistent" with the "correct and timely cycle for construction," Warner said.
Warner also reiterated support for reforms to trim the size of the military, and he again called for changes in the Posse Comitatus Act limiting military involvement in domestic affairs.
He also praised Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who have been criticized by lawmakers from both parties as having abrasive styles. "I've got no problems with them," Warner said.
Warner's junior colleague, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), may also jump onto the leadership ladder. Elected in 2000, the fast-rising Allen has impressed colleagues with his relentless fundraising and attention to policy and is a contender along with Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee if Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.) steps down.
Allen claims credit for raising $3 million for Senate Republicans in the last two years. He also has contributed $185,000 directly and set up four political action committees. Senate Republicans will elect leaders next week.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who is stepping down as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee after this week's historic House GOP election successes and wins in 2000, has expressed interest in taking over the House Government Reform Committee.
Maryland lost its senior member on the panel with the defeat of Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella after eight terms. And with the departure of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), the state's 10-member delegation is down to two Republicans.
Maryland's junior Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), loses the chairmanship but remains ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing veterans, housing and other agencies.