- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is under fire from fellow Democrats and outside liberals for publicly backing Rep. John P. Murtha’s bid to become majority leader, saying that the presumed speaker’s acts have cast doubt on her party’s promise to clean up the “culture of corruption” in Washington.

“How can Americans believe that the Democrats will return integrity to the House when future Speaker Pelosi has endorsed an ethically challenged member for a leadership position?” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “Representative Murtha is the wrong choice for this job.”

Most notably, Mr. Murtha was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Abscam scandal of the 1980s when FBI agents posed as emissaries of an Arab sheik and lured several congressmen into a Capitol Hill town house to hand out $50,000 bribes. Mr. Murtha was among those offered money, but he declined.

“I’m not interested. I’m sorry,” he said, adding: “You know, we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.”

The following year, the ethics panel in the then-Democrat-controlled House declined — on a “near party-line vote,” according to press accounts at the time — to file ethics charges against the Pennsylvania Democrat.

More recently, according to press reports and a dossier compiled by CREW, Mr. Murtha abused his position as ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to benefit clients of his brother, Robert “Kit” Murtha, who is a registered lobbyist. The $417 billion defense appropriations bill that went through the subcommittee in 2004 benefited at least 10 companies represented by Robert Murtha’s firm, which lobbied the congressman directly, according to the group.

“Future House Speaker Pelosi’s endorsement of Rep. Murtha, one of the most unethical members of Congress, shows that she may have prioritized ethics reform merely to win votes with no real commitment to changing the culture of corruption,” Ms. Sloan said.

Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider dismissed the concerns and said Mr. Murtha “has addressed these issues.”

“Leader Pelosi will show that Democrats will change the way business is done in Washington,” Ms. Crider said.

But many Democrats adamantly oppose Mr. Murtha and say Mrs. Pelosi blundered badly by throwing her public support behind a tainted figure just one week after winning so many campaigns that promised to clean up corruption in Washington.

“This is cloakroom conversation,” one Democrat said. “This sends a very bad message as the first thing she’s gotten involved in. The whole Abscam thing is a problem, and so is the whole wheeler-dealer thing.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who now holds the whip position, has said he has the votes needed to win the majority-leader post in this week’s elections among Democrats. Hoyer allies say he has the support of 13 of the 19 top Democrats in the House and public statements of support from at least 28 of the 40 new members.

In addition to concerns about Mr. Murtha’s background, many Hoyer supporters also say they are concerned about too much power in the hands of Mrs. Pelosi and one of her closest confidants — Mr. Murtha. Mr. Hoyer provided a counterbalance as a Pelosi rival in past leadership elections, they say, which is why so many committee chairmen-to-be support him.

Many centrist Democrats, whose ranks ballooned in the last election, also support Mr. Hoyer.

“If moderates don’t feel they have a voice in the leadership, Pelosi will have a problem because the moderates will revolt,” one Democrat said.

While Mr. Murtha has fewer public supporters, he’s picked up one of the most influential.

“I salute your courageous leadership that changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election,” Mrs. Pelosi wrote in a personal letter to Mr. Murtha. “Your leadership gave so many Americans, including respected military leaders, the encouragement to voice their own disapproval at a failed policy … . The enthusiastic response of Americans all across this nation gave an enormous lift to our Democratic efforts, and your unsurpassed personal solicitations produced millions of dollars.”

Republicans, meanwhile, sat back and enjoyed the first fight inside the new Democratic majority.

“If this is the way Nancy Pelosi plans to clean up Washington, Republicans could be back in the majority sooner than they think,” said one Republican staffer.

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