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In the Race For Majority Leader, Pelosi Chances Early Setback

By Carl Hulse
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

The intensifying fight for the No. 2 Democratic leadership job in the House is evolving into an early test of the power of the incoming House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, following her decision to throw her public support behind Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Murtha, widely considered an underdog to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the current second-ranking Democrat, sought on Monday to use a new letter of support from Pelosi to gain ground on his rival, asking for new pledges from Democrats who converged on Washington after their decisive midterm election victory.

Murtha and his allies said the role he had played in questioning the war in Iraq helped legitimize Democratic opposition and turn it into a winning campaign issue, making him the natural choice for majority leader at a time when Iraq policy will dominate the coming months of the Congress.

“When the public speaks, things are going to change,” Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said on Monday.

Hoyer and Murtha are similar in some respects, both veterans of the byzantine appropriations process and skilled in winning money for local projects in the annual spending bills. While Murtha has been closely allied with Pelosi against the war, he is well to the right of her on many social issues such as abortion and gun control and is known for his ability to work with conservatives in both parties. Hoyer is more liberal overall on social issues but is considered a pro-business Democrat.

While Hoyer has been a fixture in leadership, Murtha eschewed the spotlight and seemed content to wield his considerable influence well behind the scenes until he took a high-profile stand against the war.

But Murtha is also coming under the spotlight on another subject that dominated the campaign: congressional ethics. Murtha helped block ethics changes that Democrats had proposed last year. He has been an astute backroom dealmaker known for trading votes for the pet projects known as earmarks. He has had family members who lobbied on issues under his control, and he was caught up in the Abscam scandal more than 25 years ago, though he was never charged.

The leader of one watchdog group said Monday that Murtha’s record should disqualify him from the job, particularly since Democrats campaigned so hard against Republican corruption.