Crowning Majority Leader, Democrats Are All Smiles and Bile

By Dana Milbank
Friday, November 17, 2006

At 10:30 yesterday morning, Nancy Pelosi was chosen by acclamation to become speaker of the House. Ninety minutes later, she experienced her first smackdown.

Pelosi had only herself to blame for this briefest of honeymoons. Just five days after the Democrats' election victory, she shattered party unity Sunday by urging House Democrats to reject her longtime deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in favor of antiwar firebrand Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Abscam), who proceeded to brand House ethics reforms "total crap."

Yesterday, rank-and-file Democrats told Pelosi her endorsement was total crap: They overwhelmingly chose Hoyer to be majority leader.

"We've had our debates. We've had our disagreements in that room," Pelosi acknowledged as she left the Cannon caucus room to face more than 200 reporters and cameras. "And now," she added hopefully, "that is over. . . . Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us. Let the healing begin."

But over Pelosi's shoulder stood the hulking Murtha, hands in pockets, his face in a perma-frown. He offered perfunctory applause for his colleagues. When they joined hands overhead in the unity photo op, he turned and lumbered away.

One of his chief supporters, James Moran (Va.), stayed behind to give voice to Murtha's frustrations. "There are a number of members who can't be trusted," Moran said of Murtha's 149 to 86 defeat, minutes after a Murtha aide claimed he had the votes to win. Moran threatened that Murtha foes "will be damaged by this."

But how, if it was a secret ballot? "Oh, we have a pretty good idea," Moran said.

Nearby, Hoyer supporter Maxine Waters (Calif.) was holding forth on the impact of Pelosi's letter Sunday endorsing Murtha. "People just said 'I wonder why' and kept on moving and voted for Mr. Hoyer." It's true: Hoyer wound up with about as many votes as he forecast before Pelosi's endorsement of Murtha.

Walking through the tunnel back to the Capitol, Hoyer savored the lopsided vote that made him majority leader. "We were pretty close to being on the nose," the majority leader said, already shifting to the first-person plural.

For Pelosi, who led Democrats back to a majority in the House after 12 years, yesterday should have been a coronation for the first woman to be speaker. Instead, her party had plunged into fratricide, and cable news was running nonstop clips of Murtha talking with FBI agents posing as sheiks in the Abscam sting.

Was this a great moment for Democrats, or "total crap"? "The latter," Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider had to admit as she surveyed the melee outside the caucus room.

Before the vote, dueling staffers, wearing buttons proclaiming "Majority Leader Steny Hoyer" or "Jack," kept tabs on attendance. Capitol police struggled to keep a path clear through the media throng. Aides came out to calibrate expectations.

"We've got the votes, and we are going to win it," announced Andrew Koneschusky, a press guy Murtha borrowed for the occasion. Protesting that some outlets had reported that Murtha had conceded, he said, "Any reports of concession are false." Would he say the reports are total you-know-what?

"These rumors are total crap," Koneschusky affirmed.

Outside, a tornado watch was in effect, and reporters were plotting ways to work the cheap metaphor into their stories. Pelosi aides, seeking to reduce the vortex, decided to put out more flags. There were already seven outside the caucus room, but staffers brought in two more and arranged a star-spangled gantlet for the leaders.

Pelosi and Hoyer emerged together and clasped hands in an exaggerated show of camaraderie. Behind them, Murtha wore a miserable expression, even when Pelosi hailed his "magnificent contribution." She continued: "I was proud to support him for majority leader, because I thought that would be the best way to bring an end to the war in Iraq." Now it was Hoyer's turn for discomfort; he listened slightly agape.

The gracious Hoyer spoke fondly of Pelosi and the "good team" they make; they indulged in another showy handshake, albeit with minimal eye contact. Murtha, granted a turn at the microphone, offered a pithy postmortem: "I didn't have enough votes." Frowning, he returned to his place in the back and stuffed his hands back in his pockets.

The awkwardness continued. Pelosi described Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the incoming caucus chairman, as "coldblooded." Emanuel promised the "strongest ethical package," prompting Murtha to stare at his shoes. At another point, Pelosi appeared to undermine her rank and file, noting that she had promised to "do everything possible" to end the Iraq war. "The caucus thought differently," she added.

The first questioner, Fox News's Major Garrett, took the opportunity to remind Pelosi that "nearly 60 percent of House Democrats defied your call to vote for John Murtha" and asked: "In retrospect, what does that say about the wisdom of that endorsement and your clout within the Democratic Party?"

Actually, Garrett understated the rejection -- 63 percent of Democrats defied her. "I stand very, very proudly behind my endorsement of Mr. Murtha," she maintained, even if the caucus "thought otherwise."

"Any regrets?" Garrett pressed. "No," Pelosi answered. "I'm not a person that has regrets."

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