IMAGE: STENY HOYER
Dennis Cook  /  AP
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., beat Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., for House majority leader.
updated 11/16/2006 7:31:38 PM ET 2006-11-17T00:31:38

Democrats picked Rep. Steny Hoyer to be House majority leader on Thursday, spurning Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked choice moments after unanimously backing her election as speaker when Congress convenes in January.

A Marylander and 25-year veteran of Congress, Hoyer defeated Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania in a vote of 149-86.

His election to the No. 2 job came just a short time after the Democratic caucus put Pelosi in line to become the first woman to be speaker, a position which is second in line of succession to the presidency. It marked a personal triumph for Hoyer.

Earlier, an ebullient Pelosi declared: “We made history and now we will make progress for the American people.”

In remarks after being chosen for speaker, the Californian vowed that after 12 years in the minority, “we will not be dazzled by money and special interests.” Pelosi also called for unity in the party, but within moments she put her prestige on the line by nominating Murtha.

Murtha, a Pennsylvanian, is a powerful lawmaker on defense matters, and he gained national prominence last year when he called an end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

He and Pelosi have long been close, and when Pelosi issued a statement supporting Murtha on Sunday night, it raised the stakes in a leadership election within a party that is taking control of the House in January for the first time in a dozen years.

“I didn’t have enough votes and so I’ll go back to my small subcommittee I have on Appropriations,” Murtha said after the vote.

Murtha to chair defense subcommittee
Murtha will chair the powerful defense subcommittee with responsibility for the war in Iraq and the Pentagon budget. “Nancy asked me to set a policy for the Democratic Party. Most of the party signed onto it,” he said, referring to pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.

“I was proud to support (Murtha) for majority leader, because I thought that would be the best way to bring an end to the war in Iraq,” Pelosi said after the vote.

Pelosi and Hoyer, 67, have long had a difficult relationship. The two ran against each other in a leadership race several years ago. Pelosi won, but Hoyer rebounded more than a year later when he was elected the party’s whip.

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Hoyer’s margin of victory reflected a pre-election strategy in which he showcased support from moderates, veteran lawmakers in line to become committee chairmen and more than half of the incoming freshman class — the majority-makers whose victories on Election Day gave the party control of the House.

“Steny was more where the mainstream of where the party was,” said Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, who will become chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Of Pelosi’s endorsement of Murtha, Frank said, “She’s a very smart woman who made an error in judgment.”

The intraparty battle had preoccupied Democrats, overshadowing Pelosi’s promotion to speaker — a position that is second in line of succession to the presidency.

Many Democrats were dismayed that the family feud had broken out in the first place and objected to heavy pressure placed on longstanding Hoyer supporters.

Positions take effect in January
Pelosi officially becomes speaker in January, succeeding Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., when the House convenes and formally elects her in the next session of Congress.

Pelosi’s selection was more history than mystery; that was reserved for the Hoyer-Murtha face-off.

Murtha, 74, was a problematic candidate because of his penchant for trading votes for pork projects and his ties to the Abscam bribery sting in 1980, the only lawmaker involved who wasn’t charged.

The race dredged up Murtha’s involvement in the Abscam scandal. FBI agents pretending to represent an Arab sheik wanting to reside in the United States and seeking investment opportunities offered bribes to several lawmakers. When offered $50,000, Murtha was recorded as saying, “I’m not interested ... at this point.” A grand jury declined to indict Murtha, and the House ethics committee issued no findings against him.

“I told them I wanted investment in my district,” Murtha told MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Wednesday. “They put $50,000 on the table and I said, ’I’m not interested.”’

No. 3 also chosen
Democrats also selected James Clyburn of South Carolina as majority whip, their No. 3 post. Clyburn, who is black, would become the highest-ever ranking member of his race in Congress. Campaign chair Rahm Emanuel of Illinois was rewarded with the caucus chair post, the No. 4 position for Democrats, for his efforts in leading the party back into the majority.

Meanwhile, House Republicans, soon to be in the minority for the first time since 1994, met in private Thursday to hear presentations from candidates for their leadership posts. Their election was scheduled for Friday.

Finding a replacement for Hastert, R-Ill., as the caucus leader turned into a two-man race between Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and conservative challenger Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana after Rep. Joe Barton of Texas dropped out and endorsed Boehner.

In the Democratic race, Murtha came forward for the job despite a record of not always being a leadership loyalist. He often supplied votes to GOP leaders who were struggling to pass bills. The none-too-subtle trade-off: Murtha and his allies would do better when home-state projects were doled out by the Republicans.

Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey, who will chair the Appropriations Committee, said the divisions exposed by the race doesn’t pose a problem for Pelosi.

“There’s such universal respect and affection for Nancy. She’s gutsy as hell and she’s willing to take a chance..., push the envelope. “It was bitter between the two candidates, I suppose, but it wasn’t bitter among the members of the caucus. People get over this stuff.”

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