Murtha loses House battle
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Dennis Cook, Associated PressRep. John Murtha, D-Pa., center, receives applause during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, yesterday, after losing his bid to become House Majority Leader for the upcoming 110th Congress. From left are, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Murtha, incoming House Majority Whip James Clyburn of S.C. and incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md.
WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania's Rep. John Murtha decisively lost his bid to become House majority leader yesterday, as Democrats experienced their first major intra-party split since winning the midterm elections.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland captured the post by a secret-ballot vote of 149-86, even though the party leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, had publicly endorsed the candidacy of Mr. Murtha, a longtime ally. She actively campaigned for him in a heated race that was marked by questions about the Johnstown lawmaker's ethical history.
Some Democrats downplayed the significance of the results, but it was a notable defeat for Ms. Pelosi, who will become the first female speaker of the House when her party takes control of Congress in January.
"Steny came out a big winner today. It was a stunning victory for him. We've had our debates. We've had our disagreements in that room, and now, that's over," Ms. Pelosi told reporters after the vote. "Let the healing begin."
She and Mr. Hoyer stood side by side to emphasize their speedy reconciliation, while Mr. Murtha, significantly taller than both, hovered behind them.
Mr. Murtha emphasized how his opposition to the war in Iraq has pushed him to play a more public role in the party, and he promised to continue that role in the months ahead.
"Nancy asked me to set a policy for the Democratic Party. Most of the Democrats signed onto it, and I think the Bush administration is beginning to get the word," said Mr. Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran and congressional expert on defense issues. "I talk to the military leaders all the time. The military leaders know there's a limitation of military power. They know that it's time for us to redeploy."
Throughout most of his three-decade career in Congress, Mr. Murtha has been known mostly as a quiet, behind-the-scenes dealmaker. But he broke that silence last year, calling on President Bush to start withdrawing American troops from Iraq as soon as possible. Ms. Pelosi and other Democrats have credited him with helping to keep the issue in the public eye in the run-up to this year's elections.
In the spring, Mr. Murtha first expressed his interest in running for majority leader if Democrats won, even though Mr. Hoyer, as the vote-counting whip, already held the No. 2 spot and had been actively seeking support among members. Mr. Hoyer also spent significant time and resources on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates, winning favor among many freshman lawmakers.
But Mr. Murtha and Ms. Pelosi had formed a close bond four years earlier, when he helped her defeat Mr. Hoyer in another leadership race. On Sunday, Ms. Pelosi announced her public support for Mr. Murtha's candidacy to be majority leader.
That surprised some watchdog groups, who raised questions about Mr. Murtha's history of vote trading and ties to lobbyists as a high-ranking member on the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, especially since Ms. Pelosi had promised to push an ethics and lobbying reform package if the Democrats won the election.
"I think Mr. Murtha's ethics had to play a role in these results," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. Democrats "knew it would send the wrong message," she said.
Before yesterday's vote, both the Hoyer and Murtha camps claimed that they had enough supporters among the more than 230 Democrats. But members often make promises to more than one candidate before secret leadership votes.
"I think it was a cumulative effect," said Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who helped Mr. Murtha gather support. "Jack had a lot of bombs thrown at him in the past few days."
After the vote, Mr. Murtha met in his office with Mr. Doyle and a group of his closest allies, remaining upbeat and promising to keep advocating for an Iraq war redeployment.
Mr. Doyle said he didn't think Ms. Pelosi's outspoken endorsement of Mr. Murtha would hurt her. "She's tough as nails. She's loyal. Those are the qualities people want in a leader," Mr. Doyle said.
Mr. Murtha's base of support came from the Pennsylvania delegation, which now has an 11-7 Democratic edge because of last week's election.
"As a veteran myself, I think Jack has our back," said incoming Rep. Chris Carney, who last week defeated Republican Rep. Don Sherwood in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Mr. Carney said ethical questions shouldn't harm Mr. Murtha. "If it's questionable, ask the people in his district," he said. "If it's questionable, why has he been elected with such large majorities over the years?"
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he had supported Mr. Hoyer because the Maryland lawmaker had worked effectively with Ms. Pelosi to keep the party unified during its time in the minority. "This was not in any way a referendum on Iraq," he said of the leadership vote. "Jack deserves enormous credit for what he did."
The loss isn't likely to weaken Mr. Murtha significantly. He is still in line to be chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls billions of dollars in defense spending. He last held that chair from 1989 to 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress.
His position on the panel has benefited Pennsylvania. The state received about $120 million in earmarks courtesy of Mr. Murtha in this year's appropriations bills.
But the post also has been a source of some of the ethical concerns surrounding him. The congressman's brother, Robert "Kit" Murtha, worked for a lobbying firm whose clients won defense contracts. Kit Murtha has said he never lobbied his brother's office.
Ray Wrabley, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh's Johnstown campus, said some in the district were relieved that Mr. Murtha would be retaining his appropriations powers.
The majority leader race was the only contested one in yesterday's Democratic leadership elections. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina was chosen as majority whip, while Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois will become the caucus chairman. Rep. John Larson of Connecticut will become the caucus vice chairman.
House Republicans will hold their leadership elections today. Rep. Phil English, R-Erie, is in a three-way race to become chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, the campaign coordinator for congressional Republicans.
First Published November 17, 2006 12:00 am