Democrats bicker over posts

Pelosi's choice of Murtha triggers squabbling as Congress returns

November 14, 2006|By Janet Hook and Richard Simon | Janet Hook and Richard Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Triumphant Democrats returned to Capitol Hill yesterday to prepare for the transfer of power in Congress, but their postelection emphasis on unity quickly dissolved into power struggles and jockeying over the spoils of victory.

Much of the squabbling stemmed from the decision over the weekend by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to become House speaker, to endorse a longtime loyalist to be her second in command.

Hoyer spurned

In backing Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a strong critic of the Iraq war, for the post, Pelosi turned her back on Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who is favored by many of her party's more moderate members.

The first high-profile move by Pelosi, a California Democrat, was an early signal that she is likely to prize loyalty.

But Pelosi has set herself up for a possible early political loss. Hoyer might have enough votes to be elected House majority leader in spite of her efforts.

"Everywhere you go on Capitol Hill today, this is the topic of conversation," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who supports Hoyer. "It would have been easier for some of us not to have to exercise our independence quite so early."

The House Democratic caucus is scheduled to select its majority leader Thursday.

The freshly elected Democrats -- including many younger ones who campaigned to the right of the party line -- began to be initiated by a leadership dominated by a mostly liberal lineup of Democrats.

Cardoza, a leader of the conservative Democratic coalition in the House known as the Blue Dogs, warned that party cohesiveness would suffer if the liberals in line to lead many of the chamber's key committees do not take account of party moderates.

"We have to try to build a consensus, and it's not going to be an automatic, top-down way or we'll have conflict on the floor," Cardoza said.

Though conflicts loomed, Democrats continued to celebrate their impending return to power, which they lost 12 years ago.

"Everybody's smiling, everybody's high-fiving," said Rep. Bob Filner of California, the likely chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee when the new Congress takes office in January.

Republicans, meanwhile, plunged into a round of recriminations over their election losses, amid House leadership contests that pit conservatives against those who have been at the helm.

`We lost our way'

"We did not just lose our majority; we lost our way," said Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who is trying to oust Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio as the GOP leader in the next Congress.

In making his case against Boehner, Pence contends that conservative disaffection over the growth in government spending under the GOP-controlled Congress paved the way for the party's losses in last week's election.

The lame duck session that brought members of both parties back to the Capitol this week will grapple with the year's unfinished business, including a raft of spending bills that fund major government agencies. But much of the spotlight will be on the decisions that lay the groundwork for next year's session.

The transfer of power in the Senate has been marked by little conflict within the parties. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who has led the Democrats for two years as minority leader, will be elected majority leader. His chief lieutenant, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, will be elected majority whip.

Senate Republicans are poised to elect tomorrow a new party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to replace Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is retiring.

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.

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