THE Democrats of the United States House of Representatives will meet behind closed doors today to elect a new majority "whip the No. 3 position in their leadership.It is an unabashedly inside-the-Beltway event that has the corridors of the Capitol buzzing and Hill-watchers placing bets. If you are Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, you are feeling pretty confident - but still working the phones up to the last minute to make sure the people you think you have are still on board, and to try to lure the undecided. On Tuesday, Mr. Bonior was claiming 160 votes on his side out of 271 House Democrats. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the other leading contender, is portraying himself as a guy on the level. The race is "very close," says one of Mr. Hoyer's aides, who points out that the secret ballot (one of the few in Congress) makes its impossible to know how many votes each candidate has for certain. But, he adds, "we'll win by a small number." Aside from satisfying the political ambitions of the top contenders - no small factor in this most ambitious of venues - does this race really matter? In other words, after all is said and done and the new whip is installed, will Congress look any different from the outside, say, from Iowa? The answer, says James Glassman, editor of the congressional newspaper Roll Call, is no. "Congress has serious leadership problems," he says, referring to the top Democrats' lack of a clear and forceful message, "but this election won't change it."
No immediate impact seen The impact of the vote may be seen four or five years down the road, though, when today's whip could become a national figure tomorrow as Speaker of the House. Three out of the last four speakers served as whip, a dirty-work job that entails maintaining party discipline, counting votes, and serving as a spokesman for the party. The current whip, Rep. William Gray III of Pennsylvania, is resigning from the House to head the United Negro College Fund. Under Mr. Gray, the whip duties were carried out mainly by his staff. His predecessor, Tony Coelho of California, who quit in 1989 under a cloud of financial controversy, took an opposite, high-profile approach to the whip's work. Either Hoyer or Bonior would be expected to play the job somewhere between the two in style. Bonior is generally viewed as the more liberal of the two - with the notable exception of his stand against abortion - though policy is only one of many factors that go into how a member votes. Friendships, political alliances, perceptions of who would perform better as spokesman for the party, and committee assignments also play a role. In an interview, Bonior cited his abilities as a low-key consensus-builder on tough issues and his stress on economic and social matters as his strong points. "We need to get active in a strong way on economic issues," said Bonior, who was first elected to Congress in 1976. "We need to lay out a plan for rebuilding the country's infrastructure - roads, bridges, schools - because we're losing productivity."
Need for tax relief cited He also stressed a need for income tax relief for middle-income Americans and for national health-care legislation. Bonior says his position on abortion has cost him no more than six to eight votes. And he can count in his camp some strongly pro-abortion-rights Democrats, such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who worked with Bonior before her election to Congress in the fight against aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Bonior vows that on abortion-related votes, he will express the party's position but vote his conscience. Hoyer was unavailable for comment himself, but an aide said his strength would be in his ability to get a message out about issues the Democrats hope to build on for the 1992 elections - such as education, the environment, and health care. Hoyer is a moderate on foreign policy and "more moderate than Bonior on defense issues," says the aide. Hoyer also is perceived by the Israel lobby as more pro-Israel than Bonior, the aide adds. One of the side effects of the resignation of Gray, who is black, and the election to his spot of either Hoyer or Bonior, is that the House Democratic leadership will consist of white men from Northern states. To remedy that, the leadership is considering several options for either adding positions to be filled by women, members of minorities, and Southerners or giving jobs that will be vacated (depending on who wins the whip race) to these unrepresented groups. Women being promoted for leadership positions include Rep. Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut and Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii. Rep. Alan Wheat, a black congressman from Missouri, supports Bonior for whip and would reportedly like to replace Bonior as chief deputy whip, an appointment that is made by the House Speaker. Another black whose name comes up often as a possibility for the leadership is Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was a prominent aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.