WASHINGTON -- House Democrats are expected to caucus next month to select a new majority whip, with Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Representative David E. Bonior, D-Mich., chief deputy whip, emerging as the early favorites for the No. 3 leadership position.
Several Capitol Hill observers gave Mr. Bonior the early lead, noting that he has been pushing for the job since April and has picked up some strong support. "They're very confident," said an aide to a lawmaker supporting Mr. Bonior.
Mr. Hoyer formally began his campaign yesterday with a letter to his colleagues asking for their support and pointing to his experience, saying he would be an "effective majority whip" in listening to diverse points of view and framing a strategy on key legislation. "As caucus chair, I have sought to find consensus among our many ideological and regional points of view," the letter said.
In a meeting with Democrats yesterday, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., suggested that an election be held next month to choose a successor to Representative William H. Gray III, D-Pa., who will resign in September to assume the presidency of the United Negro College Fund.
Representative Vic Fazio, D-Calif., vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also has been mentioned as a possible contender to succeed Mr. Gray but has decided instead to throw his support behind Mr. Hoyer, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Representative Beryl Anthony Jr., D-Ark., is still considering the race and has been approached by a number of colleagues. "He's keeping his options open," a spokesman said. But several lawmakers and congressional aides said they expect the contest to be limited to Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Bonior. Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, "I think we've seen the field," and a member of Mr. Bonior's staff said, "We think it's going to be Bonior and Hoyer."
Most Democrats predict a tough race between Mr. Hoyer, a knowledgeable 52-year-old Prince George's County lawmaker and former Maryland Senate president who arrived on Capitol Hill in 1981, and Mr. Bonior, 46, an introverted but passionate congressman who fought military aid to the Nicaraguan contras. A former probation officer, he has represented his Detroit-area district since 1976.
"It will be a contest," said Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd. "Bonior's been working hard."
Mr. Bonior told colleagues he was interested in the whip position in April, when Mr. Gray was considering whether to seek the vacancy created by the death of Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa.
Since then, Mr. Bonior has picked up two key members to spearhead his candidacy: House Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley, D-Mass.
Mrs. Pelosi, who supports Mr. Hoyer, said he might have been harmed by not starting his race earlier. "The only disadvantage was he did not begin his campaign until Bill Gray announced he was resigning," she said. But she added, "In the one day, Steny has gone a long way in catching up."
Mr. Hoyer also has picked up some key supporters, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell, D-Fla. And Mr. Fazio's backing is a double blessing, since it frees up the 25 California Democrats who probably would have supported one of their own.
One problem for Mr. Bonior could be his opposition to abortion, which could affect the votes of some members, particularly the 21 Democratic women.