Iraq War Critic Surprises Democrats

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006

Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), one of the Democrats' leading antiwar voices, startled his political colleagues yesterday by announcing he would seek a senior leadership position if the Democrats win control of the House in November.

In a letter that he circulated on the floor during a series of votes, Murtha said he is eyeing the No. 2 position. "If we prevail as I hope and know we will and return to the majority this next Congress, I have decided to run for the open seat of the Majority Leader," Murtha wrote.

The presumed favorite for that job had been the current No. 2 House Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), with whom Murtha has long had testy relations. Hoyer, like many of his political colleagues, greeted Murtha's announcement with annoyance and exasperation, given that the election remains five months off and a Democratic victory is by no means assured.

"Mr. Hoyer has worked extraordinarily hard to unify the caucus and take back the House for Democrats, and that is his first focus," said Stacey Bernards, his press secretary. "As a result of that unity, he's confident that we will be successful in November, and intends to run for majority leader."

Bernards listed Hoyer's long résumé of political service, including his current post as Democratic whip, for which he was unopposed, and previous jobs as caucus chairman and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Murtha did not explain the timing of the letter or why he was suddenly itching to climb the leadership ladder. Were Democrats to win House control, Murtha would be second in line to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful jobs in Congress.

He issued a brief statement to reporters that reiterated the two-sentence letter to his colleagues: "Our goal is to win the House back, and if there's an open seat, I'm the candidate."

One theory is that Murtha's candidacy could provide midterm voters with a tougher, more conservative contrast to the liberal minority leader, Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). A decorated Marine combat veteran, Murtha is strongly pro-military. But his call last year for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was a pivotal moment in the war debate, emboldening many Democrats to speak out forcefully against the conflict.

Despite their ideological differences, Murtha and Pelosi have been close for years. The Pennsylvanian managed her successful campaign for whip in 2001 against Hoyer, and the two have worked closely on Democratic national-security strategy.

Several senior Democratic aides, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Pelosi was aware of Murtha's decision, and while she did not encourage him, she did not request that he stop, either.

A Pelosi spokesman said the Democratic leader had no official comment on Murtha's announcement.

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