Thursday, November 16, 2006

Majority Leader Battle To Be Resolved By Secret Vote Today

One is an old bull of the Democratic Party dogged by charges of ethical missteps, and the other raised prodigious sums for colleagues to put his leadership campaign over the top.

Today's election for House majority leader pits Rep. John P. Murtha, the longest-serving member of Congress from Pennsylvania and an icon of Iraq war opponents, against Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a polished political operative who is also the party's biggest fund-raiser.

While the tussle is unlikely to derail the Democrats' program, it has cast a pall over their post-election euphoria and become a public relations setback for the likely next House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California.

"It is very surprising that on the heels of this big election victory the Democrats are having a leadership fight," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "You would think they would want to present a united front. It is embarrassing." ...

Though he is a social conservative who opposes abortion, Murtha's reputation soared among liberal Democrats when he challenged the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

That Murtha is a decorated Vietnam War veteran with close ties to the Pentagon bolstered his credibility to make the antiwar case. Both of the Philadelphia area's new congressional Democrats, Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy, say they will vote for Murtha for the No. 2 position in the House leadership.

"He's the dean of the Pennsylvania delegation, and I very much respect his position, which is one of moral courage, on Iraq," Sestak said.

Hoyer, the Democratic whip, currently serves as Pelosi's No. 2. Although Hoyer and Pelosi have clashed in the past, Hoyer spent much of the election season raising $2 million for fellow House Democratic candidates, according to the campaign analysis firm of Dwight L. Morris & Associates. ...

"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. ...

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.

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.

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