- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

House Democrats will decide today whether to install as their majority leader one of the most scandal-tainted members of Congress.

Today’s vote on Rep. John P. Murtha — whom likely Speaker Nancy Pelosi enthusiastically supports — comes 10 days after Democrats seized control of the House and Senate after promising to clean up the corruption that they said had become a hallmark of the Republican Congress.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Republicans yesterday picked as their leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The No. 2 position of Republican whip went to Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippian who four years ago fell from leadership after praising the 1948 presidential campaign of then-segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

Mr. McConnell, who for years has excoriated Democrats for obstructing the Republican majority in the Senate, signaled the new minority’s willingness to play a similar role.

“We represent a vigorous minority of 49 in a body where it takes 60 to do anything,” he told reporters. “We are unified in our desire to work with the Democrats across party lines to see what we can accomplish for the country, but we will be a robust minority, a vigorous minority, and hopefully a minority that is only in that condition for a couple of years.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats emphasized the need for Republican cooperation.

“We really need bipartisanship,” said incoming Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who helped lead the filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

But most of the attention on Capitol Hill yesterday fell on Mr. Murtha’s run for House leadership, which many Democrats worry will sully their stunning victories last week and ruin any hopes of a reputation for ethical reform. Mr. Murtha didn’t help his case when reports surfaced yesterday that he dismissed the party’s plans for ethics reform during a gathering of newly elected Democrats.

Mr. Murtha, elected last week to his 18th term, is often noted today for his service in the military and his demands that troops be withdrawn from Iraq. But for more than 25 years, he’s also been remembered as the “unindicted co-conspirator” in one of the most famous and blatant cases of congressional corruption ever exposed.

In 1980, Mr. Murtha of Pennsylvania was among eight members of Congress lured to a town house in Washington to collect $50,000 in “walking-around money” from what turned out to be FBI agents posing as emissaries for an Arab sheik seeking influence.

Video of the rendezvous shows Mr. Murtha negotiating for a long-term relationship with the apparent crooks, trying to cut fellow congressmen out of the deal and stating that he may be willing to take money from the men in the future.

Mr. Murtha turned down their bribe — for the time being. But he spent 54 minutes doing so, according to FBI surveillance tapes recently obtained by the conservative magazine the American Spectator and posted on the Internet.

“These guys were trying to corrupt me,” he said in an interview yesterday with Chris Matthews of MSNBC. “They were the slimiest guys I’ve ever seen.

“I deal with people like this all the time,” he added.

He insisted that his only interest was in getting the men to invest in his district.

Mr. Murtha testified against his fellow congressmen in federal court and was not charged with any crimes. In 1981, the House ethics committee also declined to punish him.

“The ethics committee cleared me completely, unanimous vote,” he said yesterday.

According to news reports at the time, the panel in the Democrat-controlled Congress declined to pursue charges on a party-line vote.

Some Democrats say Mrs. Pelosi’s backing of Mr. Murtha doesn’t bode well for her promise to aggressively root out corruption in Congress. At the very least, critics say, Mr. Murtha failed to obey House rules requiring that members report any attempted bribes — a rule that Mr. Murtha should have been aware of as a member of the House ethics committee in 1980.

The liberal activist group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named Mr. Murtha one of the most corrupt members of Congress — not mentioning his role in the Abscam scandal, but instead highlighting his dealings with lobbyists and pork-barrel spending in recent years.

Both Mr. Murtha and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who is currently the No. 2 House Democratic leader, have said they have the votes to get elected majority leader.

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