Posted Thursday, Nov 16, 2006; 10:18 p.m.
Hoyer beats Pelosi pick, Hoyer, in race for democrats' house majority leader
WASHINGTON — House Democrats chose Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland as their majority leader today after a bruising fight that cast a cloud over the party’s post-election celebration.
The election of Mr. Hoyer over Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, by a vote of 149 to 86, was an embarrassing setback for Representative Nancy J. Pelosi of California, who will be speaker of the House in the new Congress and had backed Mr. Murtha.
Mr. Hoyer, 67, is in his 13th term in Congress and his second as party whip under Ms. Pelosi, who has been Democratic minority leader and was put in line to become speaker when Democrats regained control of the House in last week’s elections.
Ms. Pelosi was picked by her Democratic colleagues to be speaker in the 110th Congress, which convenes in January. Her elevation had been a certainty, and it was overshadowed by the battle between Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Murtha.
Mr. Hoyer had expressed confidence just before the vote. Asked by reporters in a Capitol hallway whether he thought he had the support he needed, he smiled and said, “I think I do; we’ll find out soon.”
House members acknowledged that the increasingly bitter contest for majority leader was sullying the image of unity and new direction that Democrats hoped to convey.
“It’s four days that we haven’t talked about our message and built on the euphoria,” Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat who supported Mr. Hoyer, said on Wednesday. “We had such perfect pitch last week.”
Downtrodden Republicans enjoyed the spectacle of the split between Ms. Pelosi and those Democrats who rallied behind Mr. Hoyer.
“I can’t believe they are self-destructing before they even get started,” said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. “Everyone on our side is giddy.”
The Hoyer-Murtha contest was not fought along conventional ideological lines. Mr. Murtha, 74, a staunch conservative on most issues with the exception of his highly publicized opposition to the Iraq war, had the support from some of the most liberal Democrats. Mr. Hoyer, the more liberal of the two, had strong backing from moderates and centrists, as well as some of the most seasoned House Democrats.
House and Senate members of both parties had strained to understand Ms. Pelosi’s strategy.
They wondered why, in her moment of victory, she injected herself into a leadership fight that was bound to end with the selection of her rival, Mr. Hoyer, or her own choice, a lawmaker criticized for his ethics record, after an election in which Democrats campaigned on a clean-government theme.
Mr. Hoyer and Ms. Pelosi have had a sometimes tense relationship, at least in part because he unsuccessfully challenged her for the party whip post in 2001. In that contest, Mr. Murtha ran Ms. Pelosi’s campaign.
Mr. Murtha, who is 74 and has been in Congress for almost 33 years, threw more fuel on that fire. Members of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog group said that during an appearance before them Tuesday, Mr. Murtha disparaged an ethics overhaul that Ms. Pelosi and the leadership have been promising as one of their first orders of business.
Two lawmakers at the session confirmed that the comment, first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, left many stunned, given the new scrutiny Mr. Murtha’s deal-making on the Appropriations Committee has drawn, along with his involvement in the 1980 Abscam bribery sting run by the F.B.I. He was never charged in that case, but a widely circulated film showed him being offered a bribe and responding that he was not interested in the money “at this time.”
In an interview on the MSNBC program “Hardball” Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Murtha said that at the time of Abscam he was interested in attracting foreign investment to relieve high unemployment in his Pennsylvania district and, though suspicious of the offer, wanted to keep open the possibility of legitimate investment. As for the ethics package promoted by Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Murtha said he was complaining that Congressional wrongdoing was superceding other matters “when we’ve got a war going on and we got all these other issues — $8 billion a month we’re spending.”
After writing a letter of support for Mr. Murtha, Ms. Pelosi personally went to bat for him, attending a reception for new members and pressing lawmakers on their choice for majority leader. Her allies say her intervention reflects the sort of risk-taking strategy that has brought her to the brink of becoming speaker, and that it sent a message to lawmakers that if they stick with her, she will reciprocate.
But several Democrats said her direct involvement was clouding the Democratic takeover by showing squabbling Democrats in serious disagreement over the direction of the party.
“This is somewhat distracting us,” Mr. Hoyer conceded Wednesday, even as he predicted that he would win the race and that the party would avoid substantial fallout.“I expect that we will bring the party together and become unified and move on from this,” he said in a brief interview.
Mr. Hoyer came in for criticism of his own Wednesday from an outside watchdog group, Public Citizen. It ranked him as a top Congressional recipient of contributions from lobbyists and political action committees, receiving more than $5.6 million in PAC money since 2000. Mr. Murtha collected about half that much.
“Both candidates for House leadership have taken large amounts of special interest money,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
Mr. Murtha and his allies have emphasized the role he played in building Democratic opposition to the Iraq war, an issue that was crucial to the party’s victories last week.
Mr. Hoyer and his supporters acknowledge the import of Mr. Murtha’s turnaround after his initial support of the war. Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts described it as a “Nixon goes to China moment,” but said it did not entitle Mr. Murtha to the leadership post.
Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, a liberal Democrat from Ohio who disagrees with Mr. Murtha on major social issues like abortion and gun control, said in a letter distributed to his colleagues that Mr. Murtha’s leadership on the war outweighed other considerations.
“We need Jack Murtha for majority leader,” Mr. Kucinich wrote, “because at a critical moment on the major international policy issue facing America and the world, he showed an openness, a readiness to listen and a willingness to set a new direction, based on new information. This is the mark of someone who moves forward with courage.”
David Stout contributed reporting.