Pelosi’s power play

With her bold endorsement of Iraq critic Jack Murtha to be her second in command, the incoming House speaker is already putting her authority to the test.

Topics: Iraq war, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Steny Hoyer, D-Md.,

Pelosi's power play

On Tuesdays when Congress is in session, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., gathers reporters in his third-floor sitting room just steps from the House gallery. For the last four years, about two dozen journalists show up to sit beneath brass chandeliers in well-upholstered chairs to hear from Hoyer about the Democrats’ hopes and their frustrations with Republican rule.

But on this Tuesday, Hoyer found quite a different scene when he arrived for his weekly “pen and pad” briefing with the scribbling class. The room was packed with close to 60 reporters, who stood squeezed together like spectacled sardines, overwhelming the air conditioning and causing everyone to sweat. “It used to be such a small meeting,” Hoyer said, as he removed his suit jacket and took his place in an armchair at the center of the room. “I must have the votes. You guys must be counting.”

He was referring, of course, to the secret ballot that will be cast on Thursday by each Democrat who has been elected to serve in the next Congress. The vote for the new Democratic majority leader will determine whether Hoyer can continue his role in the Democratic leadership next year, or whether his throne will be usurped by Jack Murtha, the Pennsylvania poster boy of Democratic opposition to the Iraq war. Hoyer tried to cut the tension with another joke. “The reason I am running is because we need younger leadership,” he said in an apparent knock at Murtha, who is 74, seven years Hoyer’s senior.

Both men have been quietly jockeying for the job since the summer, but the race officially broke into a sprint on Sunday, when Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi sent Murtha a letter endorsing his candidacy for the No. 2 position in the House. Her ostensible reason was Murtha’s prominent advocacy of withdrawal from Iraq. “I salute your courageous leadership that changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election,” she said in the letter, which Murtha promptly leaked to the press. Hours later, Pelosi departed for New York, to greet the birth of her newest grandchild. Meanwhile, liberal bloggers like Arianna Huffington rallied around the public rationale for Murtha’s election. “Murtha was a key reason the election was a referendum on Iraq,” Huffington wrote.

But the internal power struggles in Congress are never so simple as they seem from a distance. The current contest is less a referendum on Democratic foreign policy, on which the caucus is increasingly united, than the governing power of Pelosi, the first Democratic speaker in 12 years. By promoting Murtha at the final hour, Pelosi was rewarding an old friend who had once co-chaired her campaign to be elected minority whip in 2001. She was also slighting Hoyer, who had run against Pelosi in 2001, arguing that she was too liberal. Clearly, Pelosi is trying to exercise her power over the caucus. But in this early and uncertain fight, she may be risking her authority as a leader who can deliver the votes: If Murtha loses, it will be perceived as a sign of Pelosi’s weakness. And even if Murtha prevails, the fight could leave behind a divided caucus, though Democrats are downplaying that possibility.

By early Tuesday morning, Pelosi was spotted back in Washington, walking along the Potomac in jeans shortly after 8 a.m., talking on a cellular phone. As the day progressed, she made no public appearances and gave no hint of exactly how much political capital she planned to invest in defeating Hoyer. This left plenty of room for members of Congress to try to spin the quietly unfolding events.

Hoyer argued that Pelosi endorsed Murtha out of obligation, as a perfunctory gesture because Murtha is an old friend and ally. “Leader Pelosi is a very loyal person,” he told reporters, repeatedly, on Tuesday. But Murtha’s supporters countered by claiming that Pelosi was in fact staking her reputation on the race and actively seeking to undermine Hoyer. “The speaker is totally engaged in this,” Rep. Jim Moran, of Virginia, said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. “She believes that it is important to have someone as deputy — particularly in the role of majority leader — who she has complete trust and confidence in.”

What is clear is that the contest between Hoyer and Murtha has far less to do with policy and ideology than power and personality. One need only look at the haphazard patterns of endorsements that Murtha and Hoyer have already received.

California’s Maxine Waters, who chairs the 71-member Out-of-Iraq Caucus, which endorses Murtha’s plan for troop withdrawal, has thrown her hat in the ring for Hoyer, in part because Hoyer supported her when she ran for leadership positions. “The majority of the Out-of-Iraq Caucus is supporting Mr. Hoyer,” said Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, another caucus co-founder who is backing Hoyer. “Mr. Hoyer is all-inclusive. He is a builder of bridges. He is a member’s member.” To buttress the point, Hoyer’s office released an endorsement letter last night signed by six members of the Progressive Caucus.

The pro-choice and pro-gun-control Hoyer has also received support from some of the most conservative members of the Democratic Caucus. “Congressman Hoyer has always had an open-door policy to centrists like my boss,” said Tom Hayden, a spokesman for Rep. Lincoln Davis, a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage Democrat from Tennessee. Other centrists, like Gene Taylor from Mississippi, are backing Murtha, even though they have little love for the liberal policies of Pelosi. “He’s very strong on national defense,” Taylor explained, adding that “south Mississippi has wall-to-wall military installations.”

Indeed, Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, makes an unlikely ideological ally for the liberal Pelosi in just about every policy arena except for Iraq. For much of his career, he has quietly worked behind the scenes building up power as an appropriator of military pork. First elected in 1974, Murtha has one of the most conservative voting records for a House Democrat, is reliably pro-life and anti-gun-control, and is well-known for his ability to strike side deals with Republicans. He regularly sponsors the constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, voted to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and is rated one of the most corrupt members of Congress by a liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. In addition to his close ties to two prominent lobbying firms, Murtha has been dogged by his role in Abscam, an undercover government sting operation in 1980, during which he was videotaped being offered a bribe by an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik. Murtha rebuffed the offer but left the door open for a later time.

Yet, above all, this contest is “a family affair,” says Michael Capuano, D-Mass., a key ally of Pelosi’s in the fight. “This is not a campaign like a public campaign, when people put issues into platforms,” he said. But in its closing days, it verges on becoming a family squabble, if not a full food fight in time for Thanksgiving. During the cramped Tuesday meeting with Hoyer, reporters got a new press release on their BlackBerrys from the Murtha camp. “Congressman Hoyer’s position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Senator John McCain, he advocates more troops,” one reporter read out loud, before asking Hoyer for his response.

Hoyer played it cool, knowing that in such internal battles there is little to be gained by campaigning in the press or appearing ruffled. “That’s not accurate,” Hoyer said. A few minutes later, his office responded with its own press release, including three different letters that Hoyer, Murtha and Pelosi had signed calling for a “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq” to begin this year. A few hours later, Murtha put out another press release, noting that Hoyer had originally opposed Murtha’s initial call for the removal of permanent U.S. troops from Iraq. “Jack Murtha has been a constant voice for change in Iraq and Steny Hoyer has not,” the release reads.

As of Tuesday afternoon, both the Murtha and the Hoyer camps were claiming that they had lined up more votes for the majority leader’s spot. But such projections have been historically untrustworthy, since many members of Congress simply want to back the winner and are liable to switch sides. If the campaign ratchets up, the risk of bad blood dividing the newly victorious Democratic Caucus increases. Already, some Democrats are firing warning flares. “I think the greatest risk is, if [Pelosi's] preference does not win, you are likely to have a divided caucus, and that is what she is trying to avoid,” said Moran, the Murtha supporter. He added that the vote totals on both sides were still moving, but he believed that Murtha had pulled ahead.

For his part, Hoyer continues to broadcast confidence, as if the Murtha threat to his leadership position were little more than a media creation. “The reports of dissension are much greater than the actual dissension,” he told the Tuesday morning briefing. “My expectation is Mr. Murtha is going to play a very important role in the future as the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee.”

To be sure, Hoyer has been wrong before. In 2001, when Hoyer ran against Pelosi for the position of minority whip, he predicted that he had 106 votes just before the ballots were cast. He ended up losing to Pelosi by a vote of 118-95. As he later told the Washington Post, 11 of his colleagues had misled him.

The outcome of this race, which will mark Pelosi’s first major victory or defeat as leader of the House, is still anybody’s guess.

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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