The new Democratic majority in the House hit the ground squabbling Monday in a leadership struggle that could significantly shape the debate over the course of the war in Iraq.
House Democrats came under pressure from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is expected to be elected speaker when Democrats meet Thursday, to support the ouster of her own top deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who is seeking to become majority leader in the next Congress.
Pelosi and Hoyer have had a tense relationship at the top of the Democratic leadership since she beat him for minority leader in 2001. This time, Pelosi is backing Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who managed her successful leadership campaign then, to unseat Hoyer.
Murtha’s challenge isn’t unusual on its face — veteran lawmakers routinely jockey for position in their parties’ leadership structures. What makes it noteworthy outside the Capitol cloakrooms, however, is that Murtha, a highly decorated Marine who was the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress, helped jump-start the Democratic takeover of the House when he called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Hoyer, by contrast, has cautioned against moving too quickly in Iraq, telling MSNBC-TV on Monday: “You can transfer authority to the Iraqis ... but we need to do so in a way, hopefully, that will not create greater carnage.”
Pelosi made it clear where her sentiments lay in a letter to Murtha that was released Monday.
“With respect to Iraq in particular, I salute your courageous leadership that changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election,” she said. “It was surely a dark day for the Bush Administration when you spoke truth to power.”
Murtha, 73, told MSNBC-TV, “You bet,” when asked last week whether he expected to win Thursday. Hoyer, 67, said in a statement, “I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi as majority leader.”
Democratic unity on Iraq coalesces
The forcefulness of Pelosi’s endorsement of Murtha sent a strong signal that opposition to the president’s conduct of the war would be a principal Democratic concern beyond just Election Day. At the same time, Democrats in the Senate began lining up behind a proposal for a phased-in withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in four to six months.
The proposal was put forth by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is in line to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who would become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, endorsed Levin’s proposal Sunday in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”
Levin told reporters Monday that last week’s election results, in which Democrats won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years, proved that Americans rejected “the vice president’s view of a few weeks ago — ‘full speed ahead’ in Iraq.”
Levin said the comments ignored “the obvious reality on the ground in Iraq: that we’re getting deeper and deeper into a hole.”
Baker commission questions Bush, Cheney
The prospect of a new, unified Democratic message on Iraq comes as a 12-member bipartisan commission studying Iraq began questioning Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their top national security aides Monday.
White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that in the meetings at the White House, members led by James Baker, secretary of state in the administration of Bush’s father, wouldn’t tip their hand about what recommendations they would make.
With members of the commission scheduled to meet Tuesday with Democratic foreign policy experts, supporters of Murtha said the time was right to up the pressure on Bush by hammering home the Democrats’ commitment to getting out of Iraq.
“Jack [Murtha] was the first one in the center of the debate,” Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said on MSNBC-TV’s “Hardball.”
“He came out and said we have to move. ... He brought the county together in this election and got them to vote out the Republicans,” McDermott added. “Without Jack, we would not be in power today.”
But Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who backs Hoyer, said Murtha’s camp was making too much of the differences between the two on Iraq.
“I think Steny Hoyer, like our leader, Nancy Pelosi, and virtually all Democrats, [is] very supportive of a phased redeployment,” she said, also on “Hardball.” “I’m for staying with the team that got us in power, and that’s with Steny Hoyer.”
Bush, who made a point of meeting publicly last week with Pelosi and Hoyer at the White House, did not answer directly when asked Monday whether he would ever accept a formal timetable for withdrawing from Iraq.
Questioned at a joint appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush, who has sent increasingly cooperative signals to Hill Democrats since last week’s election, would say only that any plans had to take account of “conditions on the ground.”
“I’m looking forward to working with the Democrats to achieve common objectives,” he said.
NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell contributed to this report from Washington.