Pelosi Backs Murtha in Battle With Hoyer Over House Majority Leader Seat - Southern Maryland Headline News

Pelosi Backs Murtha in Battle With Hoyer Over House Majority Leader Seat

Pelosi Credits Murtha's Bold Stance on Iraq as Significant Reason Democrats Retook the House and Senate

By EMILY HAILE, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - Steny Hoyer, who represents all three southern Maryland counties in the U.S. House of Representatives, is vying to become the newly-Democratic House Majority Leader. This is the number two power position behind the Speaker of the House.

Hoyer and House Minority Leader Pelosi, D-Calif., who in January will likely become the first female speaker, have had a strained relationship since both ran for minority leader in 2002, but analysts say that the tension may be an asset to Democrats as they try to shape their agenda.

Both leaders were congratulated personally by President Bush, who praised the Democrats' "disciplined campaign" at a press conference following the midterm election.

But House leadership elections, cast by secret ballot and slated for Nov. 16, loom large for the area's longest-serving congressman.

These contests are "the ultimate inside political deal," that members take very seriously, said Richard E. Cohen, a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

Last summer, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a close political ally of Pelosi's and instrumental in her 2002 bid for minority leader, announced he would challenge Hoyer, who is now the minority whip, for the majority leader post. Murtha gained a significant amount of publicity during the last year for his aggressive stance against the way the war and subsequent occupation in Iraq have been executed by the Bush Administration.

Murtha does not appear to have qualms about playing the Pelosi card in his campaign.

"Steny Hoyer has campaigned against Nancy Pelosi not only openly, but under the table for the last two or three years," he said Wednesday on National Public Radio. "This is an open seat."

"I'm gonna win," Hoyer said Friday. "There's no doubt in my mind. I have the votes of the majority of the existing members and I think I'll have the majority of the votes of the new members."

Just a few days ago, analysts were agreeing that Pelosi would want to avoid an inter-party blood bath at all costs, and that Hoyer was an obvious choice given their successful teamwork in unifying the caucus. "I would be very surprised if Pelosi let this turn into a food fight," said Zach P. Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

However, on Sunday, the wait for news about which direction Pelosi would go came to an official end. Pelosi sent a personal letter to Murtha, which Murtha later released to the public, indicating her support for him in his bid for the majority leader position.

"Your strong voice for national security, the war on terror and Iraq provides genuine leadership for our party, and I count on you to continue to lead on these vital issues," wrote Pelosi in the letter to Murtha. "For this and for all you have done for Democrats in the past and especially this last year, I am pleased to support your candidacy for Majority Leader for the 110th Congress."

Pelosi also praised Murtha's courage in speaking out about Iraq: "With respect to Iraq in particular, I salute your courageous leadership that changed the national debate and helped make Iraq the central issue of this historic election. Your leadership gave so many Americans, including respected military leaders, the encouragement to voice their own disapproval at a failed policy that weakens our military and makes stability in that region even more difficult to achieve. 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 which were new to the effort. Those resources made a huge difference and particularly for the candidates on whose behalf you campaigned."

In a released statement today, Hoyer came off as not surprised by Pelosi's decision. "Nancy told me some time ago that she would personally support Jack," said Hoyer in the statement. "I respect her decision as the two are very close."

Hoyer continued: "I am grateful for the support I have from my colleagues, and have the majority of the caucus supporting me. I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi as Majority Leader."

Hoyer's position on Iraq has been much more reserved compared to the approach taken by Murtha.

Tim Schlittner, Hoyer's Maryland Press Secretary, defined Hoyer's position on Iraq by pointing to three letters, sent by Hoyer and other Democratic leaders over the past four months to the President, that outlined a new direction in Iraq.

In July, they said that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces must begin this year; Iraqis need to amend constitution as previously agreed; and there should be an international conference to raise money for reconstruction. In September, they reiterated these proposals and called for a change of leadership at the Pentagon. In October, they once again reiterated these suggestions and asked that the President put more pressure on Prime Minister Maliki to disarm militias and finalize the constitution.

"Mr. Hoyer believes the President, as Commander in Chief, needs to sit down with Democrats to talk about a way forward that speaks to the American people's concerns," said Schlittner in a response by email. "The Democratic leadership will aggressively pursue a course correction, and they look forward to reading the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group's recommendations."

The Study Group is a bipartisan ten-member panel that was appointed in March of this year by the Congress. It is charged with delivering an independent assessment of the situation in Iraq. The group is led by co-chairs James Baker (R), a former Secretary of State in the administration of President George H. W. Bush and Lee Hamilton (D), a former U.S. Representative. Prior to this panel, Baker is most recently known for his efforts to defend the Saudi Arabian government against a $1 trillion lawsuit on behalf of the victims of 9-11.

Hoyer has received bipartisan support in his own district and is known on Capitol Hill for his success in galvanizing the party as whip since 2003. Hoyer is in a good position to curry favor given his non-stop stumping on behalf of Democrats this season.

Hoyer is certainly the front-runner, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington. And Van Hollen should know: He spearheaded the successful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue," campaign which brought in more than two dozen new Democrats to Congress.

Bringing Democrats together is "sometimes like herding cats," Van Hollen said, but Hoyer has proven his ability to reach out to people when it comes to key issues and to act as a mentor to freshman representatives.

Congressman-elect Brad Ellsworth, who handily beat a Republican incumbent in Indiana's 8th District, said Wednesday he will likely back Hoyer, with whom he has established a close relationship over the past year. Hoyer visited Ellsworth's District and the two spoke more than a dozen times in the week leading up to the election.

The outcome of next week's election is anybody's guess.

"Outsiders have virtually no idea how these contests are conducted," said Cohen, though he's certain that all the members of the caucus are being lobbied and weighing the potential consequences of their votes. "Leadership contests often can be very tough, hard-nosed, even bitter politics."

(David Noss contributed to this story.)

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