Hoyer presses bid for House post

Opposed by Pelosi-backed Murtha, Marylander tries to cling to support

November 15, 2006|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, insisting he still has the votes to become the next House Democratic leader, fought to hang on to his support yesterday amid an intense bid by likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sway Democrats to back her ally.

Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, once appeared assured of moving up to majority leader when his party takes control of Congress in January. But Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, a former Marine whose criticism of the Iraq war is credited with helping turn the midterm election in favor of the Democrats, has seemed to gain momentum since he won the public endorsement of longtime confidante Pelosi.

Pelosi and her lieutenants are pushing Democrats to back Murtha. Her endorsement of Hoyer's rival has some Democrats - freshmen and senior members eager to secure plum committee assignments - feeling intense pressure to commit themselves to Murtha or risk being blacklisted.

One target of Pelosi's campaign is Rep.-elect Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Hoyer supporter, who was summoned to Pelosi's office to explain why she wasn't backing Murtha, Hearst Newspapers reported last night. At the session, Pelosi asked Gillibrand for her committee preferences.

Supporters of both men were working the House floor, trying to win over members who have yet to declare their intentions or to turn around those who have made commitments.

Democrats described a bruising battle for lawmakers' loyalties, with members weighing the likely impact of their choice on their standing in the new majority.

"The stakes are very high," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County. "People understand that their position in this race could impact their position going forward. There will be retribution." Wynn, like the rest of the Democrats in the Maryland delegation, is backing Hoyer.

"Everyone is calling everyone," he said. "People are as sick of these calls as they were of those robocalls during the [congressional] campaign."

Conducted by secret ballot among colleagues who have developed complicated webs of loyalty and rivalry that might extend over decades, leadership elections are difficult to predict.

"These things are all very personal," said former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a veteran of such contests. "It's based on relationships that members have that are established over the years with friends and things that they've done for people or that members may perceive they'll do for them in the future. It's very tricky."

With the race apparently tightening, critics of Murtha have been accusing the veteran lawmaker of trading legislation for campaign contributions. Pelosi, who faces no opposition for speaker, had campaigned on promises to clean up corruption in Congress.

Hoyer declined yesterday to be drawn into the claims lodged against Murtha this week by watchdog groups.

"I am not looking back," Hoyer said during his regular weekly news conference. "That is not my role. My role is to look forward."

The only contested race on the Democratic side pits Hoyer, 67, a moderate from Southern Maryland who campaigned heavily for colleagues, and Murtha, 74, a social conservative from southwest Pennsylvania who has emerged as one of the party's leading critics of the Iraq war. Each says he has the votes to win.

Some Democrats are concerned about the impact the contest could have on party unity on the eve of their return to power after 12 years in the minority.

"I regret that it's happening," said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a Hoyer supporter. But the race will end soon enough to prevent lasting damage, he said.

The contest appears to be straining relationships. One Murtha ally said privately that allegations of ethical lapses by the congressman had angered some Democrats and could hurt Hoyer.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has criticized Pelosi for backing Murtha, who won a "dishonorable mention" in the watchdog group's list of the most corrupt members in Congress. The group accuses Murtha, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, of steering legislative earmarks toward lobbying clients of his brother and a former staff member.

Murtha escaped prosecution in the Abscam sting of the 1980s. He turned down a $50,000 bribe offered by FBI agents who claimed to be representing an Arab sheik but appeared to leave open the possibility of future dealings: "I'm not interested ... at this point," he was recorded as saying.

Murtha, who has served more than three decades in the House, lashed out at his critics.

"I am disconcerted that some are making headlines by resorting to unfounded allegations that occurred 26 years ago," he said in a statement. "I thought we were above the type of Swift-boating attack. This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress."

Murtha has campaigned for majority leader on his criticism of the Iraq war and his ties to Pelosi.

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