A showdown over the House majority leader's post today has Democrats bitterly divided only a week after their party took control of Congress and has prompted numerous complaints that Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her allies are using strong-arm tactics and threats to try to elect Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) to the job.
Murtha, 74, a former Marine who was among the first on Capitol Hill to call for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, may have hurt his own chances Tuesday night when he derided the Democrats' ethics and lobbying package before saying he will push for its passage anyway out of deference to Pelosi. His statement, at a gathering of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, was cited by backers of his rival, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), as further proof that Murtha's controversial ethics record disqualifies him to lead the party in a new political era.
Pelosi's aggressive intervention on behalf of Murtha has baffled and angered many Democrats, who think she has unnecessarily put her reputation on the line out of misplaced loyalty to a friend and because of a long-standing feud with Hoyer, the minority whip. Pelosi has pushed Murtha's candidacy at social events, in private meetings and with incoming freshman Democrats; they have been called to her office to discuss committee assignments, only to hear first that she needs Murtha in order to be an effective leader.
Hoyer, 67, was heavily favored to win the race until Sunday, when Pelosi -- in a move that shocked even her staff -- openly threw her support to Murtha, despite a vow to stay neutral. She said in a letter that she was swayed by Murtha's early call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, and that he would be best positioned to lead a new Democratic majority.
Hoyer still maintains the public support of most incoming committee chairmen, influential liberals such as Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.), most conservative Blue Dogs, and 21 of the 40 or so freshmen. But Murtha has a sizable contingent from the Appropriations Committee and the Pennsylvania delegation, as well as Pelosi's closest supporters. Since her endorsement, Pelosi has been unabashedly pushing Murtha.
"Have you ever seen a leader get involved in race like this? That should tell you all you need to know about her commitment," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a friend of Pelosi's who is supporting Murtha.
So intense has the lobbying been that incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) -- after fielding a call from Pelosi -- said in a media report that he hadn't really endorsed Hoyer in a published interview in which he praised him.
One conservative Democrat said that a Murtha-Pelosi ally approached him on the House floor and said pointedly: "I hope you like your committee assignment, because it's the only one you're going to get."
‘Letters don’t mean anything’
In a phone call initiated by Murtha that same day, the lawmaker told the longtime politician that he had already signed a letter of support for Hoyer. The congressman said he was stunned when Murtha told him, "Letters don't mean anything."
Hoyer's supporters complained about such tactics.
"Commitment is something of value in this institution," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). "If you have somebody in this race saying, 'Oh, your promises don't really mean anything in a secret ballot,' that bothers me, and it should bother a lot of people."
Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Appropriations defense subcommittee, has been dogged by allegations that he has skirted ethical boundaries and has thwarted efforts to tighten rules on lobbying. Those questions were amplified yesterday after at least three attendees at the Tuesday-night meeting of Blue Dog lawmakers complained that Murtha had disparaged the Democrats' ethics and lobbying package.
"He said, 'You know, I believe it's total crap, but Nancy supports it, and I'm going to push it,' " said a senior Blue Dog Democrat and Hoyer supporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was divulging comments from a closed-door meeting.
Pelosi aides stressed that Murtha remains dedicated to the package's passage, but the dust-up rekindled memories of past Murtha votes. He was one of 12 Democrats to vote against campaign finance legislation written by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and he was one of four Democrats who opposed an ethics package earlier this year that was designed to contrast the Democrats' tough stance with a weaker Republican bill. He also pushed a rules change to block outside groups from filing complaints to the House ethics committee.
The Murtha camp has accused Hoyer of a "stay the course" mentality on Iraq, which Hoyer says does not accurately reflect his call for a phased redeployment of troops.
Although the main focus has been on the nasty sniping between Murtha and Hoyer, the unspoken story is the long-simmering rivalry between Pelosi and Hoyer. The two have known each other more than 40 years -- since, as young, ambitious Maryland natives, they interned for then-Sen. Daniel B. Brewster.
At one time they were friends, but their ambitions eventually put them on a collision course. Pelosi nominated Hoyer in a 1991 House leadership race and was one of his lieutenants. But in 2001, the two ran against each other in a protracted and nasty race for minority whip. Pelosi won handily, but her allies charge that Hoyer never stopped running for the next prize and along the way tried to undercut her authority. Hoyer has said he has never been anything but supportive of Pelosi.
Holding a grudge
For the most part, lawmakers, Hill aides and some outside advisers -- even some close to her -- say they are at a loss to explain why Pelosi has held a grudge for so long, because she clearly has the upper hand as leader of the House Democrats. They suggest that part of what rankles her is that Hoyer is not beholden to her and feels no compulsion to publicly agree with her on every issue. This, allies say, she sees as a sign of disloyalty. With the number of declared votes still heavily favoring Hoyer, Murtha's supporters were hoping a plea to unify behind Pelosi would secure an upset today.
It is not clear that the pitch is working. "I'm a DA," said Hoyer supporter Michael Arcuri (D), the Oneida County district attorney just elected to represent his Upstate New York district. "I'm used to pressure."