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11.18.10

Steny Hoyer's Last Stand

The House Democratic leader on GOP disrespect for Obama, and his party’s aging congressional leadership as he prepares for life in the minority.

“Why is this man laughing?” House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer asked the assembled press Thursday morning.

Most of the 40-odd reporters in Hoyer’s conference room for his weekly “pen and pad” press availability are probably not old enough to have recognized his reference to the arch caption that appeared every year under a goofy photo of a grinning Richard Nixon in Esquire magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards—a now-defunct satirical rogues gallery of folks who’d met with self-inflicted calamity.

But they certainly got his point.

In a scant few weeks, when the House Democrats fade into the minority, Hoyer’s coach will turn into a pumpkin, and, as minority whip, he will be forced to relocate to less grand offices befitting the party out of power.

“I want to know how many people are going to be at the pen and pad I have on January 5th,” Hoyer remarked, to a roar of laughter. “I want to say to all the loyalists here,” he added, “let’s reserve the seats in whatever room they have—or in the parking lot…or in whatever small cubicle I might find myself.”

Showing up jacketless, as usual, in a crisp white monogrammed shirt, the gray-maned Maryland congressman put on his bravest face after a brutal couple of days in which angry members of the Democratic caucus battered but then re-elected the same leadership team that presided over the midterm election debacle.

This morning, Hoyer fielded questions about dissension in his much-depleted caucus, whether and how the Bush tax cut expirations will be handled on the floor, and other housekeeping issues that will soon pass from his shoulders.

He made a ritual if hollow request for bipartisanship and “finding common ground,” decried the shortsighted political imperative to conduct the people’s business according to “the two-year election cycle,” and implied that the Republican leadership had dissed President Obama by refusing to show up at a bipartisan White House summit scheduled and then canceled for Thursday.

“I can never remember an instance when President Bush asked the Democratic leadership to come down to meet with him that we did not accommodate our schedule to that request,” he said. “That’s being respectful of the president of the United States.”

“I can never remember an instance when President Bush asked the Democratic leadership to come down to meet with him that we did not accommodate our schedule to that request,” he said. “That’s being respectful of the president of the United States.”

It was left to Luke Russert, NBC News’ 25-year-old Capitol Hill correspondent, to ask Hoyer the obvious question: Does the aging face of the House Democratic leadership—70-year-old Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the 71-year-old Hoyer and 71-year-old assistant leader Jim Clyburn—present a troublesome image? They are, young Russert pointed out, positively elderly compared to the relatively youthful Republican team of Speaker John Boehner, who just turned 61, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy, who are both in their 40s.

“I’m going to take this as a personal focused attack,” Hoyer joked, He added that the Democratic team “is a wonderful-looking group, isn’t it?...It’s not a question of age. It’s a question of mind, passion and commitment…I don’t think any of you have seen me limping into this room. Hopefully you don’t think I’m suffering from any kind of mental lack. And if I had thought, at 21, that I was going to feel this good at 71, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

Hoyer, ever the vote-counter, couldn’t resist pointing out, “And, by the way, us seniors are a very growing bloc, so you young people: Be very respectful.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.