WASHINGTON — Filling a key leadership post, House Democrats today will choose a new party whip in a contest between a pragmatic Capitol Hill veteran from Maryland and a Californian seeking to become the first woman in congressional history to hold such a high partisan office.
On one level, the race between Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is an insider's game.
The chief job of the minority whip, the No. 2 position among 210 House Democrats, is to count noses and enforce discipline on important floor votes for the party out of power. But more is at stake in today's vote behind closed doors.
There is regional politics. Californians, who have the largest House delegation at 52 members, could have their first voice in top leadership since Democrat Tony Coelho (D-Merced) stepped down as House majority whip a dozen years ago.
There are party dynamics. Although both lawmakers have liberal records, Hoyer might chart a more centrist course than Pelosi--no small issue for a caucus often prone to bickering between left- and right-leaning factions.
There is the chance the winner could one day become minority leader or, if Democrats retake the narrowly divided House, speaker. In the last 50 years, five former party whips have risen to become speaker, including Democrats Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. and Thomas S. Foley and Republican Newt Gingrich. The post, with its national exposure, also has been a launching point for such notables as Trent Lott, now Senate minority leader, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
And there is a significant gender barrier waiting to be broken. No woman in the House or Senate has served so high up in the leadership. That alone is reason for many Democrats to back Pelosi.
"Everything else being equal, breaking what's been an all-male monopoly of leadership in both houses for both parties is a good thing," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is backing Pelosi. "That's probably the major difference."
The vote will cap a contest that has been developing behind the scenes for more than two years. Hoyer and Pelosi began campaigning in 1999 for party whip on the assumption the post would swing open if Democrats captured the House in the 2000 election and their current leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, rose to speaker, and their current whip, Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, became majority leader.
When that scenario fizzled, the Hoyer-Pelosi contest was suspended. But it reignited this year when Bonior, who has been Democratic whip since 1991, decided to resign that post to concentrate on a campaign for Michigan governor.
Bonior's two would-be successors have much in common. Pelosi is 61 and has served 14 years in the House; Hoyer is 62 and has served 20 years. Both are senior members of the Appropriations Committee and ranking members of other influential panels (Pelosi on the Permanent Select Intelligence Committee and Hoyer on the Administration Committee).
Both are heavy fund-raisers and stump widely for Democratic candidates. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington found that Pelosi gave $1.1 million to Democratic causes during the 2000 election cycle, ranking her behind House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) among congressional campaign donors. Hoyer was not far behind, giving $927,000 in the same time.
The two whip contenders even share a Maryland connection. Pelosi's father and brother were mayors of Baltimore.
For Pelosi, though, California is a major asset. She has public commitments from 30 of the state's 32 Democratic representatives. The only holdouts are Reps. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), who's backing Hoyer, and Calvin M. Dooley (D-Visalia), who has not indicated publicly which way he will vote.
"It's important for a Californian or a Westerner to be at the seat of power," Pelosi said in an interview. She said that, drawing on her California base, she would bring an "entrepreneurial" attitude to the post that would "invigorate the legislative process, to think in new, creative ways."
In the end, Pelosi acknowledged, the vote may turn out to be something of a popularity contest. "It's not about voting records," she said. "It's about me."
For his part, Hoyer told reporters the key issue is "who's going to run the best whip operation, and who's going to reach out to the broadest spectrum of our caucus. This ought not to be a campaign of glitz. This is a campaign of substance."
Who is winning? The victor will need to gain a simple majority of the 215 members of the Democratic caucus who show up to vote (210 representatives plus 5 nonvoting delegates). Pelosi says she has locked up victory, claiming support from at least 120 Democrats. Hoyer scoffs at her total and says he has 106 commitments and a surge in momentum.
Some insiders believe the San Franciscan is ahead. But congressional leadership races are notoriously hard to handicap. Some lawmakers, wanting to alienate neither candidate, are likely to pledge their support to both.
All evidence suggests the contest is close. Pelosi has the endorsement of Bonior, which is not necessarily a surprise since Bonior ran against and defeated Hoyer for the position 10 years ago. Hoyer, though, has endorsements from lawmakers such as Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), chief deputies in Bonior's whip operation.
Pelosi lists public support from 33 of the 45 women in the caucus. But Hoyer on Tuesday picked up the endorsement of the senior female Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio. Pelosi has the backing of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a longtime member expert on defense issues. Hoyer has Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the senior member of the House.