WASHINGTON — In her quest to become speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California appears ready once again to sacrifice the higher ambitions of her No. 2, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Hoyer is not shy about expressing his objections.

“She’s not negotiating for me,” he snapped the other day, referring to Pelosi’s deal with a group of House Democratic rebels to impose term limits on the leadership — and not just herself — of four years.

As Democrats prepare to assume control of the House, the Pelosi-Hoyer frenemies dynamic, long a subject of intrigue in the Capitol, is growing ever more complex. The friction goes back decades. The last time Democrats took power from Republicans, in 2006, Pelosi backed then-Rep. John Murtha in his effort to oust Hoyer from the majority leader’s slot.

The putsch failed spectacularly, but she’s ready to handcuff him again with a deal on term limits that, if approved, would most likely usher both lawmakers from their leadership suites by early 2023, along with the No. 3 Democrat, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina.

All three septuagenarians could be weakened by their lame-duck status — in Washington, power is always prospective — but Hoyer, 79, the lone white man in the group and a symbol of the party’s dwindling centrist wing, would appear to be the most vulnerable to an even earlier challenge.

Some see Hoyer as the ultimate corporate pol, out of sync with a Democratic caucus in which women, millennials and people of color are in ascendance, with the loudest new voices on the left. His longstanding ambitions to be speaker would almost certainly be curtailed by the plan’s emphasis on generational change, though under it, he could technically serve four years as majority leader, and then, at 83, run for speaker.

But over his more than 50 years in public life, 37 of them in Congress, Hoyer has proved himself a quiet survivor. He is now the House’s longest-serving Democrat. Last month, he skated to victory to reclaim the majority leader’s post, even as some fellow Democrats pushed for Pelosi’s ouster.

“Is Tom Brady too old at 41 to be quarterback?” he asked in an interview, comparing himself to one of the best NFL players in history.

His survival skills may be put to a new test as he fights back against the term limits proposal, which is subject to a vote of the entire caucus when the new Congress convenes in January. The debate will pit old-school Democrats like Hoyer, who derive their power from the seniority system, against newcomers, who want to shake things up.

“Steny entered the political scene at a time when Democratic Party politics was much more conservative and traditional in how it operated,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, also D-Md., adding, “One of the last great challenges of Steny’s career is to figure out how to incorporate the surge in progressive feeling in our party.”

Hoyer’s stock in trade is his ability to cultivate allies across the Democratic spectrum (not to mention lobbyists and donors), and he is busy making new friends on the left. Among them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive firebrand from New York, who at 29 is half a century his junior. He dropped in to see her at a cafe in Queens on Halloween, the first time they had met.

“I remember feeling very pleasantly surprised,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

But while he may have left her with the impression that he will embrace her vow to make waves, in the interview, Hoyer was more cautious. He took a dim view of Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to join environmental activists at a protest in Pelosi’s office.

“I was a little bit surprised, but you know, she’s gung-ho, she’s full of vim, vigor and vitality,” he said, adding tartly, “One could say there are other ways to make a point.”

Like Pelosi, Hoyer raises millions of dollars for Democrats — more than $10 million in this election cycle alone — and crisscrosses the country campaigning for them. Unlike her, he has not become the subject of Republican attack ads and is welcome in districts across the country. If Pelosi is the public face of the caucus, he is the “member’s member,” guiding younger colleagues on everything from hiring decisions to committee assignments.

“Hoyer is the old-school pol; everything about him is hail-fellow-well-met,” said Amy Walter, national editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He just is so much different than the new generation of leaders. He’s not an outsider, he’s not one who wants to destroy the establishment.”

Indeed, the establishment has been friendly to Hoyer, tall and silver-haired, with a toothy smile and a seemingly endless supply of conservative ties and starched white shirts. Of the more than $4 million he raised this last election cycle, more than $1 million came from large contributions, and nearly $2.5 million came from political action committees, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign finance.

He opposes Ocasio-Cortez’s call to keep members who take industry contributions off a select committee on climate change, saying the corrupting influence of money in politics can be cured through disclosure.

Progressives were up in arms earlier this year when Levi Tillemann, a progressive energy consultant, secretly recorded Hoyer urging him to quit a House Democratic primary in Colorado to clear a path for a more moderate veteran, Jason Crow, who won the Republican-held seat. Tillemann’s grandfather was Tom Lantos, a venerated California Democrat who died in 2008 and was extremely close to Hoyer, and his uncle is Richard Swett, a former Democratic congressman from New Hampshire.

“Steny Hoyer,” Tillemann said, “is part of a system that is bought and paid for by powerful people, corporations and interests.”

Hoyer makes no apologies. And Hoyer’s allies see his it’s-not-personal attitude as a virtue. Veronica Escobar, an incoming freshman from Texas, recalled that when Hoyer agreed to support her, he insisted on breaking the news himself to a friend who was backing her opponent.

“It showed a level of not just courage, but a level of transparency and a desire to be forthright and candid and open and honest,” she said.

Pelosi and Hoyer go back more than half a century. Having known difficult times — his biological father left him, and his stepfather was an alcoholic — Hoyer was working his way through the University of Maryland as a night file clerk for the CIA when he heard a young Sen. John F. Kennedy speak on campus.

Inspired, he switched his major from public relations to politics, and ditched the CIA job to work part time for Sen. Daniel B. Brewster, D-Md. There, in 1963, he crossed paths with a summer intern, Nancy D’Alesandro, soon to be Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of a longtime Baltimore mayor and Maryland Democratic royalty.

“She was bright, beautiful, energetic and a big wheel,” Hoyer recalled. “She was a D’Alesandro.”

The “something happened when they were interns” theory of their friction is the stuff of Capitol lore, but Hoyer dismissed that as “baloney.” While they were not close, he said they had a “wonderful relationship.” He allowed that they came from very different worlds: “She ran in different circles than I did.”

Four decades later, in 2001, they ran against each other for Democratic whip. Pelosi won. In an interview, he took pains to note that she had the backing of 30 of the 32 Democrats from her home state of California, while his home state of Maryland had only four Democrats all told.

When Pelosi backed Murtha in 2006, “I wasn’t happy about it,” Hoyer said. But he won handily, which seemed to produce a détente.

Raskin said Hoyer was “very much at peace with where he is right now,” but Hoyer is not ruling anything out. Before Pelosi secured the votes to become speaker, he described himself as “one of the alternatives” should she fall short, and said that “of course” he would one day like to have the job, while adding quickly that he had a pretty amazing job right now.

He refused to say whether he would run again or retire in 2020. In the meantime, there is something he would like people to know:

“I’m not Nancy’s lieutenant,” he said. “I’m Nancy’s partner.”

The New York Times

Sheryl Gay Stolberg © 2018 The New York Times