- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

House Democrats face their first major internal battle since Tuesday’s stunning victory, a fight that pits some of the chamber’s anti-war Democrats against the ideological center of their party.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, now the No. 2 Democrat in the caucus and thus in line to hold the majority leader’s post, faces a challenge from Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who has come to represent the party’s anti-war movement because of his strong critique of the Bush administration’s handling of the war.

Though Mr. Murtha is otherwise a fairly conservative Democrat, his position on the war appeals to many liberals in his ranks and, say Democratic staffers, he has the private blessing of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the caucus’s head and the presumed next House speaker.

Within minutes of Democrats’ capturing the 15th seat needed to take control of the House, Mr. Hoyer tried tightening his grip on the majority leader position by reminding fellow Democrats that he had been a central figure in their caucus during their darkest times.

“We have put forward responsible budgets, proposed smarter defense policies, advanced innovative ideas on energy independence and stood strong against the privatization of Social Security,” he said. “I have been proud to be a part of all of those efforts every step of the way.”

He also has said he has the votes to sew up the No. 2 position.

Mr. Murtha reminded colleagues that his strongest voice in recent years came in opposition to the Iraq war, which strategists on both sides credit in part for Democrats’ enormous victories this week.

“Talk is cheap, which is why, up until Iraq forced me to, I didn’t do a lot of it,” the former Marine told colleagues. “But empty rhetoric is expensive. It has cost America three years in a failed war at nearly three thousand lives lost and will cost us a trillion dollars by the time we can extricate ourselves from it.”

While the liberal Mrs. Pelosi must figure out how to unify an increasingly conservative caucus, she addresses the leadership fight for the No. 2 spot gingerly. She’s officially staying out of the contest — which will be decided next week — but few wonder where she stands.

She has a long friendship with Mr. Murtha and, Democrats say, supports his candidacy. Mr. Hoyer, in contrast, has been Mrs. Pelosi’s rival for leadership positions in previous years.

But the last thing she wants is a nasty internal fight that exacerbates differences in her caucus between the fierce anti-war Democrats and those from the more conservative wing, many of whom were elected to Republican-held seats this week.

Some Democrats also worry about moving Mr. Murtha into a high-profile leadership position after running so many campaigns about cleaning up the corruption in Congress. Mr. Murtha was among eight members of Congress caught up in the so-called Abscam bribery scandal of the 1970s and 1980s. While Mr. Murtha told the FBI agents posing as representatives of a fictitious Arab sheik that he was “not interested,” he pointedly left open the possibility of future dealings.

While much of Mr. Murtha’s support stems from his anti-war credentials, Hoyer supporters are quick to highlight Mr. Murtha’s conservative position on abortion and other issues.

“Steny has an unwavering commitment to core Democratic principles,” a group of top Democrats wrote in a letter to colleagues on Mr. Hoyer’s behalf. “There simply is no question that Steny is deeply committed to our Party’s efforts on civil and human rights, our support for working men and women, our commitment to education and health care, and our fight to protect the environment — to name a few.”

The letter was signed by Democratic Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, John D. Dingell of Michigan, John Lewis of Georgia, Henry A. Waxman of California and Ike Skelton of Missouri, among others.

Other leadership races got settled smoothly for Democrats yesterday.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who is credited with picking up nearly 30 seats Tuesday, decided to avoid a fight for the No. 3 position of majority whip, which will go to Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. Mr. Emanuel — in his second term in Congress — will become conference chairman and the youngest member of leadership.

“I seek this post, and not any other, because I believe what we need now is a unified Democratic caucus, focused squarely on the business of moving this country forward,” he said yesterday.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who is challenging Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio for minority leader, will pick up the endorsement today of the conservative group Club for Growth.

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