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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)

"We've had our debates. We've had our disagreements in that room, and now that is over. As I said to my colleagues . . . let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us. Let the healing begin," Pelosi said.

Later, Hoyer held private conversations with Murtha and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a Pelosi confidant who led the charge for Murtha's election. All the players pledged to unify behind the new Democratic team, which will include House Majority Whip-elect James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John B. Larson (D-Conn.).

"We may have . . . differences from time to time," Hoyer said. "But the Republicans need to know, the president needs to know and the country needs to know our caucus is unified today."

But the top of the ticket has considerable mending to do. Pelosi expressed no regrets for her efforts on Murtha's behalf. On the contrary, she stood by her choice for majority leader, despite the avalanche of negative reactions that raised questions about Murtha's ethics and commitment to changing the role of lobbying and money in the House.

"I stand very, very proudly behind my endorsement of Mr. Murtha," she told reporters after the vote.

Emanuel said the Democratic caucus will come together as members sit down to flesh out their legislative agenda. The outlines of that agenda were put together this year through painstaking consultation with the liberal, moderate and conservative wings of the party. That process will continue to unify Democrats as the details are worked out, Emanuel said.

But yesterday, Murtha's supporters were still smarting. Miller, who angered many Democrats with his aggressive tactics on Murtha's behalf, blamed "Swift-boating" for Murtha's defeat and the resurgence of stories questioning Murtha's ethics. He said Democrats missed an opportunity to elevate a stronger, unimpeachable voice on Iraq -- the issue that brought them to power.

Hoyer, like Murtha, has signed Democratic letters calling for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq. But last year, just after both Murtha and Pelosi said U.S. troops should be withdrawn in six months, Hoyer suggested that "a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster."

Murtha allies conceded that he managed to undermine his own campaign, particularly when he told a gathering of conservative Democrats on Tuesday night that Pelosi's ethics package was "total crap."

The "Blue Dog" Democrats at that gathering said Murtha also made a critical mistake that night when he put himself forward as Pelosi's loyal lieutenant, ready to do whatever she asked of him even if he personally disagreed. Many of them had been savaged in their campaigns by Republicans who predicted that they would be rubber stamps for Pelosi, a "San Francisco liberal," and they had vowed to be independent voices in conservative-leaning districts.

Ultimately, it was Hoyer who secured his own victory, by working in the trenches for years to raise money for Democratic candidates, recruit reluctant combatants and offer advice to those just wading into the political arena.

"He had been doing the tough work," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). "It's just mind-numbing -- all those fundraisers, the travel, sleeping in hotel rooms. It needs to be rewarded."

In contrast to Murtha, with his gruff demeanor and straight talk, Hoyer is a well-practiced politician with a breadth of policy knowledge who plays to the news media. Yesterday, after Pelosi gave reporters a cursory statement of support for D.C. voting rights, Hoyer jumped in with a more voluble response.

"We who live in the Washington metropolitan area believe that the country ought to take it as a moral cause to ensure the fact that every citizen of the District of Columbia has a vote in the Congress of the United States," Hoyer said. "It is the only capital in the free world that I know of whose citizens are disenfranchised."

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