Rep. James P. Moran Jr. quit his House leadership post yesterday for what he called his "insensitive" remark that Jews were pushing the nation into war with Iraq, but vowed to rebuff any efforts by fellow Virginia Democrats seeking his retirement next year.
Moran, a seven-term incumbent whose suburban seat is now being eyed by several well-known Northern Virginia Democrats, also said he welcomed any challenger from the party who wants to try to unseat him in a 2004 primary election.
"I love politics and politicians, and if anyone wants to get in, more power to them," Moran said. "But if I were them, I'd think twice before getting into the ring with me."
In a telephone interview, Moran sounded chastened by the criticism he sparked with his remarks but also resolved about continuing in Congress on his own terms, saying that in coming weeks "we'll see what I'm made of." The 57-year-old said his professional life had been turned upside down by the "perfect storm phenomenon" of his poorly chosen and ill-timed words on politically sensitive issues, including possible war with Iraq and the Jewish community's role in U.S. policy debates.
"Talking to my two kids on the phone three times a day, that's the only kind of normality that exists right now," Moran said.
Moran infuriated many Jewish and non-Jewish voters alike with his remarks at a March 3 forum in Reston, where he said, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this."
"The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should," Moran said at the forum.
Moran swiftly apologized, repeating the apology this week and again yesterday, as he quit as the mid-Atlantic regional whip in the House Democratic Caucus, a position his colleagues elected him to three years ago.
"I'm stepping down as a way to demonstrate acceptance of my responsibility for insensitive remarks," Moran said. "I'm deeply regretful that I've hurt people. I'm sorry I've hurt them. Most importantly, I will strive to learn from my mistakes and listen to the concerns of my constituents."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement yesterday that she had asked Moran to step down, though Moran advisers said he had brought the subject up first, offering to give up the job in a Thursday meeting with Pelosi. Yesterday, Pelosi said Moran's "irresponsible remarks were a serious mistake."
"As I said earlier this week, his comments were not only inappropriate, they were offensive and have no place in the Democratic Party," Pelosi said.
Some Jewish leaders praised the Democratic leadership for Moran's act of contrition, but added that they were still not satisfied by his apologies.
"It's a step in the right direction, because in our view Jim Moran is unqualified for a leadership position in Congress because of his comments," said David L. Bernstein, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee and a staunch Moran critic.
"I'm gratified that he's accepted the responsibility for what he said, but it's going to be very difficult for Moran to mend fences, given his long record on Jewish issues," Bernstein said. "The damage of this last statement and his past statements has already been done."
Moran, who has had fierce quarrels with some Jewish leaders over the years, in part because of his criticism of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, said he was frustrated that the context of his remarks had not been explored in much of the national media coverage. He said he had been "exhorting" a questioner in the audience -- a woman who had identified herself as Jewish -- "to work within her sphere of influence" if she felt strongly about war with Iraq.
"I exaggerated the sphere of influence she was part of," Moran said. "This is a very sensitive time, and it's unfortunate the words came out, baldfaced, without contextual explanation. It was two minutes in a two-hour forum."
Moran added: "I know in my heart I'm anything but anti-Semitic." But, he added, "What was said was said. Nobody's going to take my explanation at face value."
Moran said he plans to hold "a whole lot of one-on-one meetings" with Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to try to patch things up, rather than make any theatrical public pronouncements that his advisers conceded could only make matters worse. "If I can, I will deal with it privately," Moran said.
Turning to politics, Moran said he expects that some Democrats will try to nudge him into retirement as the November 2004 election approaches. Last year, the Democrat spent $1 million to win with 60 percent of the vote in a district that is 70 percent Democratic.
"I have no intention of ending my political career that way," Moran said.
Katherine K. Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said this week that she is considering running in next year's Democratic primary for the 8th District seat, as did state Sen. Leslie L. Byrne (Fairfax), a former member of Congress.
"People are trying to find a way for him to exit gracefully, but that's never been Jim's way," Byrne said.
Byrne said challenging Moran could be divisive for Democrats, adding that she would decide "based on personal and family obligations that have nothing to do with whether Jim Moran stays or goes."