Hoyer wins majority post

| Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

Some political observers believe John Murtha's ties to a 26-year-old scandal and questions over his ethics might have cost him the post of majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Others say it might have been his polarizing position on the war in Iraq, while a few say it simply was a matter of his opponent having seniority on the leadership team that helped Democrats take control of Congress.

Whatever the reason, members of the Democratic caucus on Thursday ignored the wishes of Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and chose U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Mechanicsville, Md., for the leadership job by a vote of 149-86.

"This is disastrous for Pelosi. Not only did she fail to take Hoyer out, the man she supported lost in a landslide. It's a bad signal for her," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Sabato attributed Murtha's loss to a revived interest in his role in the 1980 Abscam bribery sting in which FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks offered lawmakers $50,000 to help them become legal residents of the United States. Although he did not take the bribe and never was charged in the case, Murtha was videotaped saying he wasn't interested "at this point."

The tape surfaced in recent weeks as Murtha was running against Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey for an 18th term in the 12th District, which includes Greene County and parts of Allegheny, Armstrong, Cambria, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

"The Abscam video hurt him. A million people saw it on U-Tube," Sabato said. "It's damning. That, more than anything, hurt him."

After the vote, with Hoyer at her side and Murtha standing behind them, Pelosi congratulated Hoyer on a "stunning victory" and signaled that the bitter feud that threatened to divide the party is over.

"Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with us," she said.

Pelosi, calling Murtha a "great member of Congress," said she was proud to have supported him for the majority leader's post.

"I thought it was the best way to end the war in Iraq," she said.

Hoyer, 67, pledged to work for party unity and to ensure that the agenda put forth by Pelosi is achieved. In a gesture of peace, he said Murtha "will continue to be one of the most significant leaders" in Congress as chairman of the powerful Defense Appropriations Committee.

In turn, Murtha, 74, congratulated Hoyer, saying he "ran a hell of a campaign."

"I can't fault anything he did. I didn't have enough votes, and so I'll go back to my small subcommittee I have on appropriations," Murtha said.

Hoyer, a moderate, criticized the more conservative Murtha last year when Murtha called for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, saying it was premature. In recent months, tension in their relationship increased.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, served as a top lieutenant in Murtha's campaign for the leadership role. He said the election was a contest between "two highly respected men."

"Either one would be a great majority leader. It was tough for members to pick between the two. When it was all over, two giants shook hands and the caucus united behind them," Doyle said.

He said there are "no lingering animosities" between Murtha and Hoyer, and dispelled notions that Pelosi -- the first woman to rise to the position of House speaker -- lost power by supporting Murtha.

"We have a leader who is not afraid to take a challenge. She's tough as nails and loyal. She put herself out there and didn't take the easy way out," Doyle said.

If the Abscam scandal had any effect on the vote, it would have been among new members who do not know Murtha, Doyle added.

"It certainly didn't help. ... It may have been a deciding factor if someone was on the fence."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who had predicted Hoyer's victory, said Pelosi's call for ethics reforms in government also might have damaged Murtha, who has been criticized for a long history of trading votes for projects that benefit his district.

Crenson said it was not a good time for Murtha to challenge Hoyer, who was seen as deserving of the position because he has put in his time on the leadership team as minority whip.

In addition to Pelosi and Hoyer, other House leaders elected yesterday include James Clyburn, of South Carolina, majority whip; Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, caucus chairman; and John Larson, of Connecticut, caucus vice chairman. They will take office Jan. 4, the first day of the 110th Congress.

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