Pelosi backs Murtha as House Democratic leader

WASHINGTON – Nancy Pelosi, who unified fellow Democrats to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives last week, stirred division on Monday by backing John Murtha, a key foe of the Iraq War, as House majority leader over her current deputy.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (news, bio, voting record), now the No. 2 Democrat in the House, brushed off the surprise endorsement by Pelosi, who is in line to be elected by the full House in January as speaker, the chamber’s top job that helps set its legislative agenda.

Hoyer said he had the votes to be elected majority leader when his Democratic colleagues cast secret ballots on Thursday. The majority leader is one of the party’s most influential positions, and serves as the spokesman during House debate as well as the party’s chief negotiator with the Republicans.

“I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi,” said Hoyer, a Maryland moderate.

Andrew Koneschusky, a Murtha spokesman, replied: “He (Hoyer) likes to say the House election is in the bag. We’ll see Thursday.”

A public advocacy group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, blasted Pelosi, a California liberal, for backing Murtha, who it denounced as “one of the most unethical members in Congress.”

The group charged Murtha has opposed ethics reform. It also said he abused his position on a defense appropriations subcommittee to benefit the clients of his brother, Robert Murtha, a registered lobbyist.

Murtha’s office dismissed the complaints, and said the election for majority leader is about the future.

Pelosi, now House Democratic leader, noted in a letter to Murtha on Sunday that he had requested her support and saluted him for having helped lead the Democratic charge against the Iraq War, a key issue in the November 7 elections.

“Your presence in the leadership of our party would add a knowledgeable and respected voice to our Democratic team,” Pelosi wrote Murtha in endorsing him.

SUPPORTIVE OF PELOSI

Pelosi defeated Hoyer for the post of House minority whip in 2001, with Murtha managing her campaign. In 2003, she was elected House Democratic leader, and Hoyer was elected whip.

“Murtha says Nancy now needs someone supportive of her,” Hoyer told Reuters. “I’ve asked members, ‘Have you ever seen me not supportive of her?’ I have been supportive.”

Rep. John Lewis (news, bio, voting record), a 10-term Georgia Democrat, said: “Steny Hoyer is a bridge builder, and I believe he’ll be our majority leader. I don’t expect lasting division. We’ll have a vote and move on.”

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