Democrats Pick Hoyer Over Murtha

Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) joins Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), right, and Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) after House Democrats chose Hoyer  over Murtha, whom she had strongly backed, as the chamber's new majority leader.
Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) joins Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), right, and Rep. John Murtha (Pa.) after House Democrats chose Hoyer over Murtha, whom she had strongly backed, as the chamber's new majority leader. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Weisman and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 17, 2006

House Democrats elected Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) the new majority leader yesterday over strong opposition from Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), exposing a deep political divide even before the party takes control.

The 149 to 86 vote for Hoyer over Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) was viewed by many in the party as a repudiation of Pelosi's strong-arm tactics and a recognition of Hoyer's tireless work to elect a Democratic majority for the first time in 12 years. If the Hoyer camp's head count was correct going into yesterday's secret balloting, Pelosi and her allies may not have swayed a single vote for Murtha, a close associate.

Pelosi, 66, was formally chosen by the Democratic caucus as the first female House speaker in history. In a show of unity after the closed-door meeting in a House office building, she and Hoyer smiled and embraced. But the two longtime rivals must now try to pick up the pieces after a bitter intraparty fight and prepare for a new Congress in January, when the Democrats must be ready to pass a new domestic agenda and challenge President Bush on the Iraq war and foreign policy.

A buoyant Hoyer vowed to work closely with Pelosi and Murtha to force Bush to change his Iraq policy and begin withdrawing troops. Pelosi had strongly backed Murtha, 74, for majority leader largely because of his early call for a troop withdrawal, which she said helped galvanize the party and win the Nov. 7 midterm elections.

The Murtha camp accused Hoyer, 67, a moderate, of a "stay the course" mentality on Iraq. Hoyer said that charge did not accurately reflect his call for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops. Yesterday, Hoyer pledged to work for the adoption of a new agenda that "is going to reach across to the president of the United States and say, 'Mr. President, we need to make a transition in Iraq; it is not working; we need to change the policy, not stay the course.' "

Both Hoyer and Murtha claimed to have a majority of votes going into yesterday's showdown, but even Pelosi had to concede that Hoyer's final margin was "a stunning victory."

Pelosi had made it clear for months that she favored Murtha over Hoyer. But on Sunday, she shocked even her staff by directly intervening in the contest by issuing a letter throwing her support to Murtha, a former Marine and the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

Pelosi's aggressive, last-minute campaign for Murtha in the face of overwhelming support for Hoyer left many Democrats worried that she has become too reliant on a tight inner circle, too reluctant to listen to the broader Democratic caucus and mistakenly convinced that she can dictate the direction the caucus must take.

"Basically, she got spanked," said a House Democrat close to both Pelosi and Hoyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. "She got taken to the woodshed. If she doesn't get it, this is going to be a big problem over the long run."

"Maybe it will help Nancy understand the use of power, the time and place for it," said a senior Democrat with close ties to Capitol Hill.

But others think the dust-up may have been useful in clearing the air between Pelosi and Hoyer. "Here's the deal -- she's apparently been irritated by a perception that Steny has been undermining her, and it's an incorrect perception," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "Look, someone told me she hasn't liked him since 1963, and it has had zero effect on how well they have worked together. We don't have to guess at this. We have seen it. They can and will work well together as we move forward."

After the party elections yesterday, Pelosi and Hoyer emerged from the caucus room beaming and grabbed each other's hands. Behind them was a grim-looking Murtha, with his hands in his pockets and his eyes cast down.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company