WASHINGTON - With its red and blue lights flashing, Steny H. Hoyer's burly, black Chevy Suburban hurtles through the streets of the capital, taking him to old places in new ways.
For the first time since the Maryland Democrat assumed his influential role as House majority leader, he's able to sit down at the White House with a president from his own party.
"I get along very well with President Obama," Hoyer said in an interview. "He is a very easy guy to work with, very thoughtful, very open to suggestions."
Hoyer came to Congress in 1981 after gaining prominence in Annapolis. But until now, for all his time in Washington, he had served in the majority with a Democratic president for only two years, during Bill Clinton's first term.
These days, "Steny loves what he's doing. He loves life," said Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, a close friend and colleague of more than 40 years.
It is a life that only a workaholic lawmaker could adore. His routine tracks the legislative calendar, which he directs in his role as traffic cop for the House of Representatives.
When Congress is in town, his security detail picks him up at his Washington apartment at 7 a.m. Less than 10 minutes later, he's in his princely suite of offices on the main floor of the Capitol, which looks out at the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
With luck, his workday will end about 14 hours later. By Hoyer's admission, it is not always a glamorous existence.
"The good news is, I'm a pretty simple eater, and I like Dinty Moore stew or Hormel chili or Campbell's clam chowder," said Hoyer, 69, whose wife died in 1997. "A lot of times, I'll go home and fix a frozen meal."
It is still early in Obama's term, but there have been an unusual number of invitations to the White House. Circulating through the East Room at the signing of a children's health care bill this month, he was able to introduce two of his policy aides to the president.
Hoyer has connections throughout the new administration. Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the second-most powerful man in the White House, "is a very close friend of mine," Hoyer said.
At a West Wing meeting with Obama and leaders of Congress a few weeks back, Hoyer poked fun at Emanuel, wisecracking that the presidential aide is too busy to take his phone calls now, so he has to call the president instead.
The inside joke referred to an incident during the transition, when Hoyer got through to Emanuel while the former Chicago congressman was riding in a car with Obama.
"Rahm, just because he thought it was a neat thing to do," handed the phone to Obama, who said, " 'Mr. Emanuel is busy and he asked me to speak to you.' We ended up talking for about 10 minutes and then they got to the hotel and he said, 'We've got to go now. ... I'll have Rahm call you,' " Hoyer recalled. "Bottom line is, Rahm didn't call."
Hoyer has close ties to other senior administration officials, including Budget Director Peter R. Orszag and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who recently appeared with Hoyer and Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore at an event in Laurel to promote the economic stimulus package).
Alejandro Perez, who used to schedule the legislative agenda as a Hoyer aide, is now a lobbyist for the White House. Another former aide, John Berry, is expected to be appointed as director of the Office of Personnel Management. That would give Hoyer a direct line to the top of the independent agency overseeing the federal work force, a valuable connection for his 5th District, which has one of the highest concentrations of federal workers in the country.
For decades, his contacts and hard work have helped Hoyer bring federal dollars home to Maryland and to the capital region where he has spent most of his life. Now, perhaps in keeping with Obama's "no-earmarks" ethic, he seems wary of claiming credit.
Asked recently if the $787 billion stimulus package bore his fingerprints, Hoyer replied, "No." But aides said later that he played a role in providing money for firehouse construction (the International Association of Fire Fighters is among the most politically active unions in the country), $250 for every federal retiree not covered by Social Security (Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Richard E. Neal, both Massachusetts Democrats, and perhaps others, also claimed credit), $1 billion for the Census Bureau, which has its headquarters in Suitland, and $25 million for the Smithsonian Institution.
His inside job - keeping fractious Democrats in line on key House votes - meshes with another top priority: tending the political needs of his congressional base - the 255 House Democrats who re-elected him as their leader.
Hoyer typically hits a half-dozen fundraising events on an average Washington night. When his colleagues return to their districts, Hoyer sometimes goes along.