Even as Democrats unanimously chose Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House on Thursday, the party remained divided over the selection of a top lieutenant.
Pelosi passed over Steny Hoyer of Maryland, now the assistant minority leader, and endorsed longtime ally John Murtha of Pennsylvania to become majority leader, the powerful No. 2 party post in the House.
Yet Murtha could prove to be 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.
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.”’
A historic move and a rivalry
Pelosi’s selection as speaker makes her the first woman ensured the job that constitutionally is second in line of succession to the presidency.
Pelosi officially takes the post in January, succeeding Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, when the House convenes in formally elects her in the next session of Congress.
Meanwhile, Hoyer, a Pelosi rival, was battling to hold onto the lead in the race with Murtha. A closed-door caucus convened Thursday morning, and both candidates were predicting victory via a secret ballot, which allows lawmakers to be evasive when asked of their intentions.
The National Journal's The Hotline, an MSNBC partner, cited two independent sources as saying Murtha's campaign was likely to fall short, although the results of the ballot weren't expected until later in the day.
Whatever the result, the Hoyer-Murtha battle is a no-win situation for Pelosi, who had hoped to avoid the fight.
A Murtha victory could create hard feelings among Hoyer allies, especially moderate Democrats. On the other hand, a Hoyer victory could be seen as a defeat for Pelosi in her first major move since Election Day.
Either way, the race has roiled a Democratic caucus that will need maximum unity in order to effectively rule the fractious House come January.
Meanwhile, House Republicans, soon to be in the minority for the first time since 1994, were to meet in private Thursday to hear presentations from candidates for their leadership posts. Their election was scheduled for Friday.
‘We got the votes’
Finding a replacement for Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois 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.
Hoyer entered the Democratic leadership race with a substantial lead by most counts, but he has been scrambling to hold onto supporters since Pelosi’s surprise intervention on Sunday. He appeared to carry a lead into Thursday’s secret ballot despite Pelosi’s opposition.
“I think we’re in very good shape. I expect to win,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “I expect that we will bring the party together and become unified and move on from this.”
With characteristic gruffness, Murtha said the opposite was true. “We’re going to win. We got the votes,” he said on MSNBC.
Allies such as Miller have been working this week to peel away votes from Hoyer. Pelosi also has intervened more directly, making the case for Murtha in one-on-one meetings with Democratic freshmen, sessions in which the incoming lawmakers ask for all-important committee assignments.
Criticism from ethics watchdogs
Murtha, a former Marine who generally has supported U.S. military efforts, has gained considerable attention for his criticism of the administration’s Iraq war policies. He steered Pelosi’s winning campaign in 2001 against Hoyer for the No. 2 Democratic leadership post, and his supporters say Pelosi deserves a more loyal wingman.
Murtha has a record of not always being a leadership loyalist, frequently supplying 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.
He has been criticized by ethics watchdogs such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who have said he exemplifies a “pay-to-play” culture of Washington. The group says Murtha has steered defense projects to clients of KSA Consulting, a lobbying firm that until recently employed his brother Kit. Clients of the firm are generous with campaign contributions.
Hoyer claims considerable support from some liberals made uncomfortable by Murtha’s opposition to abortion, gun control and changes to House ethics rules. He also is a leadership contact for many moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats.
Hoyer’s backers say he has been an able lieutenant to Pelosi and has done nothing to disqualify himself from holding the same position in the majority.
He has been aggressive in lining up supporters, most of whom are sticking with him.
“One of the first things I learned around here is that when you give your commitment you honor it,” said Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, a Hoyer supporter.