WASHINGTON -- House Democrats were scheduled to choose today between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan in what was expected to be a close election for majority whip, the third-ranking House leadership position.
Both camps exuded confidence yesterday even as they lobbied at the last minute for votes.
"We feel good about it," said Charles Seigel, Hoyer's press secretary. "They're very close; there's really no way of knowing. It'll come down to the wire."
Bonior was seen by some as the front-runner because he began lobbying for the position first, even before the current whip, Rep. William H. Gray 3rd, D-Pa., announced his retirement last month.
The whip helps define party policy and strategy, counts votes and, as the title suggests, brings Democratic members into line behind the leadership. But the significance of the election goes beyond the job itself, for whoever wins stands a good chance of becoming House speaker one day.
Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., currently is speaker, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., is majority leader, the No. 2 post. Should Gephardt run for president next year rather than stand for re-election, the whip might move up.
Hoyer, 51, and Bonior, 46, are both popular and already hold leadership positions.
Hoyer, who represents Maryland's 5th District, currently is chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest job. Bonior is chief deputy whip. Both Hoyer and Bonior are liberals, though Hoyer is considered more moderate, especially on defense.
The issue that most separates them is abortion -- Bonior opposes it, while Hoyer supports abortion rights. Hoyer has sought to exploit that difference in lobbying abortion-rights advocates in the House. But Bonior doesn't believe he's lost ground because of his position on abortion.
The race is complicated by the desires of other members to succeed one man or the other. Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn., is said to be supporting Hoyer in part because his election to whip would give her an opportunity to run for a caucus post.
Bonior has the support of several committee chairmen, who wield considerable clout, but Hoyer can count on many younger members who feel frustrated by the seniority system.