Pelosi backs Murtha for House majority leader post
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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. John Murtha broke last November with his traditional role as a silent, behind-the-scenes Washington deal maker to emerge as one of the country's most prominent critics of the war in Iraq, calling for a speedy withdrawal of American troops.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, laughs with his supporters on Election Day, when he won his 17th term.
Click photo for larger image.
Now, with his party in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in more than decade, the Johnstown Democrat and Vietnam War veteran has no intention of quieting down.
He's one of two prominent Democrats campaigning this week to become majority leader of the House of Representatives. He's also in line to become chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls billions of dollars.
Mr. Murtha is a close ally of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will become the first female speaker of the House.
Ms. Pelosi yesterday released a letter of support for Mr. Murtha to be majority leader.
"Your presence in the leadership of our party would add a knowledgeable and respected voice to our Democratic team," Ms. Pelosi wrote.
Voters in Tuesday's midterm elections overwhelmingly cited continuing bloodshed in Iraq as one of their main concerns, and Mr. Murtha, 74, views the results as a vindication of his stance on the war. He easily defeated his opponent, Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, to capture a 17th term, despite Republican criticisms that he wanted to "cut and run."
"Talk is cheap, which is why, up until Iraq forced me to, I didn't do a lot of it. But empty rhetoric is expensive. It has cost America three years in a failed war," he said in a prepared statement. "We must set a new standard for leadership in this Congress."
That won't be easy, especially because Democrats haven't united behind one approach to the war. Over the coming weeks and months, fissures could develop in the party ranks as Congress attempts to deal with Iraq and a multitude of other issues.
Mr. Murtha's candidacy for majority leader could produce one of the first splits. He initially announced his intention to seek the post in the spring, long before the election, a move that irked some of his colleagues and put him at odds with Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., No. 2 in the Democratic leadership.
The Pennsylvania lawmaker is widely viewed as an underdog in a race with Mr. Hoyer in this week's leadership elections.
Mr. Murtha issued a statement saying, "I am deeply gratified to receive the support of Speaker Pelosi, a tireless advocate for change and a true leader for our party and our country."
Mr. Hoyer has been second-ranking in the Democratic leadership behind Ms. Pelosi the past four years. He issued a statement saying he was confident he would win the race.
"Nancy told me some time ago that she would personally support Jack. I respect her decision as the two are very close," Mr. Hoyer's statement said.
"I'm going to win. There's no doubt in my mind. I have the votes of the majority of the existing members, and I think I'll have the majority of the votes of the new members," Mr. Hoyer told CNBC last week.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, who is helping Mr. Murtha collect votes, said Mr. Hoyer had made the same claims in past leadership races.
"Hoyer has never been a good counter," Mr. Doyle said. "There's a big, quiet majority of members who are committed to Jack."
Mr. Doyle said Mr. Murtha would get support from many new Democratic members, including four from Pennsylvania and others from Ohio and the Northeast.
Regardless, Mr. Murtha is likely to face a tough battle when the secret vote takes place Thursday in Washington. His conservative stances on many social issues, such as abortion, run against the mainstream of his party's positions.
If Mr. Murtha loses, his power might wane a bit, but not much. He'll still be in a position to chair the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which he headed from 1989 to 1994, the year Republicans took control of Congress.
"It's the most powerful appropriations committee on the planet," Mr. Doyle said.
Indeed, Congress recently approved a $437 billion defense appropriations bill for next year, including funding for more than 2,600 projects, or "earmarks," in members' districts, according to Steve Ellis, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group.
"Nobody comes close to that," Mr. Ellis said. "It's a big, big bill."
Mr. Murtha has made a name for himself throughout his tenure in Congress by using the appropriations process to strike political deals on both sides of the aisle.
He has maintained a significant amount of influence over defense spending, even as a member of the minority. Pennsylvania received about $120 million in earmarks from Mr. Murtha alone in this year's appropriations bills.
But the earmarking process has received criticism in recent years because of a runaway growth in spending and a string of scandals. One member, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., was convicted of bribery after accepting millions of dollars from contractors who were trying to secure earmarks.
Ms. Pelosi said last week that the new Democratic Congress would break with scandals of the past few years and try to restore the public's trust in the legislature. That means appropriators such as Mr. Murtha might have to be willing to give up some of their power.
"The Democrats are claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility," Mr. Ellis said. "This is going to be put up or shut up time."
Mr. Murtha also has said one of his top priorities is returning credibility to Congress.
In 1974, he became the first Vietnam veteran elected to the House, and he quickly earned recognition as a respected hawk on defense issues. That background provided cover for many anti-war Democrats when Mr. Murtha came forward last year as a vocal critic of how the Bush administration had conducted the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"He's always been the consummate behind-the-scenes player," Mr. Doyle said. "Iraq forced him to step into the limelight."
Mr. Murtha has called for a strategic redeployment of American troops in the Middle East to take them out of the line of fire in Iraq, which has seen an upsurge in sectarian violence in recent months. He argues that the American presence is the cause of much of the violence there.
He welcomed the news last week that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was stepping down, although, Mr. Murtha said, President Bush also needs to make clear policy changes.
Mr. Murtha said in a phone interview with The Associated Press, without specifying a date, that he wanted most troops to come home as soon as possible. A smaller number would stay in the region to respond to crises.
"The first thing we have to do is establish some truth about this whole thing. Second, we have to hold people accountable," Mr. Murtha said. "It's not a disaster for us to leave Iraq, it's a disaster for us to not have a policy."
Megan Grote, a spokeswoman for Mr. Murtha, said the congressman would continue to talk frequently about Iraq in the months ahead.
"He feels it's the No. 1 issue," she said.
First Published November 13, 2006 12:00 am