By Lois Romano and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
As Democrats enter the final days of their push to take back control of the House in next week's election, two divisive backroom leadership fights are brewing within the party, raising fears that Democratic unity could be fraying even before the first votes are cast.
For some Democrats, the battle between Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the minority whip, who had been expected to ascend to majority leader without opposition, and Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) threatens the party's efforts to appear ready to govern.
In what could be another high-profile showdown, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the ambitious former White House aide who runs the Democratic campaign arm of the House, may seek the third-ranking post of majority whip, pitting him against Democratic Caucus Chairman James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the only African American in a leadership position.
This could exacerbate racial strains in the House, since both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have complained that Emanuel is insensitive to minority concerns. Members of the black caucus accused him of using strong-arm tactics to collect dues for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Hispanic caucus withheld its dues last year until Emanuel hired a Hispanic staffer at the DCCC.
On one point there is no disagreement: If the Democrats win, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will be elected speaker. While she has not taken a public position in the Hoyer-Murtha battle, she is politically and personally much closer to Murtha and has a long-standing rivalry with Hoyer.
But members, aides and outside consultants who are closely watching the contest said Murtha has an uphill battle because Hoyer has worked for a decade to rebuild the majority, raising millions of dollars for his colleagues and recruiting Democrats to run.
And Pelosi may be irked that Murtha publicly picked this fight, according to some Democrats.
"I suspect that she feels like most other members, that we'd rather not have this divisive contest," Clyburn said of the majority leader's race. "We've spent a lot of the last two years getting the caucus together. We're more cohesive than we've been in a long time, and most people appreciate the climate we're currently operating in."
Murtha is seen by many in the House as an old-school political insider whose power is derived from his position as ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense and from the money he can direct to members' districts. A former Marine who has always been pro-military, the 16-term congressman was embraced by his liberal colleagues last year when he called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But Murtha's stand on the war has not automatically gained him support from the left in his quest to become majority leader.
Hoyer, a moderate, actively solicited support from a number of liberals who are not comfortable with Murtha's conservative positions opposing abortion and gun control. Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.), chairman of the Out of Iraq Caucus, announced her support for Hoyer, although she praised Murtha's plan for troop withdrawal. Other liberals supporting Hoyer include Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.), John Lewis (Ga.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.).
"Steny has done a tireless job to get back the House for us for more than a decade," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), a strong Pelosi ally who is in line to become chairman of the Government Reform Committee if the Democrats win. "Given the leadership he has shown and his ability to unite Democrats, he's the logical choice."
Other Hoyer supporters question why Murtha has chosen to pick a fight now when the Democrats are the most unified they have been in 50 years and are on the verge of taking control of the House.
"I have a lot of respect for Jack Murtha, but I remain shocked that he is talking about making a run for majority leader," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), a Hoyer supporter and a leading Democratic moderate. "I don't understand it. I'm not supportive of it, and it's having a deleterious effect on what I think and hope will be a huge win on November 7."
Murtha's supporters are quick to dismiss charges that the veteran lawmaker is sowing discord. They say Hoyer's supporters are acting as if he has a right to the majority leader's post, when in fact such leadership contests are routine.
"This decision is going to get made the week we get back," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (Mass.), a Murtha supporter. "There's not going to be a lot of time for it to fester. The minute it's over, we will all be pushing in the same direction."
Hoyer and Murtha have long had a rocky relationship, according to Democratic sources, and Hoyer's allies say he is not happy that he has had to spend valuable time before an important election shoring up his support. "There isn't going to be a majority leader's race if we don't win this election," Hoyer said in a brief interview last weekend.
Murtha said recently that he is running because he believes that Hoyer has been disloyal to Pelosi, an accusation that Hoyer has denied. "The guy has been trying to undercut her ever since she was elected minority leader," Murtha said. "Damn right it's true."
Some Democrats predicted that Murtha will not stay in the race if he is not fairly certain he can win, for fear of diluting his power. But Murtha supporters say he will stick it out because it is difficult to predict what members will do in secret balloting. "Look, both have duplicate names on their list," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), a Murtha supporter. "No one wants to get on the wrong side of either of them."
The Murtha-Hoyer competition could be eclipsed in bitterness if Emanuel presses ahead with a campaign for the whip's post. Kathleen Connery, a spokeswoman for Emanuel, said the lawmaker "morally feels obligated to the contributors, candidates and the caucus to focus like a laser on November 7, and anyone not doing that is not delivering for the caucus."
That said, aides close to Emanuel said he has not ruled out a challenge.
"That would be a hotly contested race," said Rep. Melvin Watt (N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.