By Jonathan Weisman and Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 17, 2006; A01
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.
"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."