Hoyer won the No. 2 leadership job easily -- 149 to 86. But the showdown divided the Democrat House caucus only a week after its party won a majority of seats in the Congress that begins meeting in January, and prompted numerous complaints that Pelosi and her allies used strong-arm tactics and threats to try to elect Murtha to the job.
Murtha, 74, a former Marine who was among the first on Capitol Hill to call for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, may have hurt his own chances Tuesday night when he derided the Democrats' ethics and lobbying package before saying he will push for its passage anyway out of deference to Pelosi. His statement, at a gathering of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, was cited by Hoyer backers as further proof that Murtha's controversial ethics record disqualifies him to lead the party in a new political era.
Pelosi's aggressive intervention on behalf of Murtha baffled and angered many Democrats, who said she unnecessarily put her reputation on the line out of misplaced loyalty to a friend and because of a long-standing feud with Hoyer, the minority whip. Pelosi pushed Murtha's candidacy at social events, in private meetings and with incoming freshman Democrats; they were called to her office to discuss committee assignments, only to hear first that she needed Murtha in order to be an effective leader.
One conservative Democrat said that a Murtha-Pelosi ally approached him on the House floor and said pointedly: "I hope you like your committee assignment, because it's the only one you're going to get."
In a phone call initiated by Murtha that same day, the lawmaker told the longtime politician that he had already signed a letter of support for Hoyer. The congressman said he was stunned when Murtha told him, "Letters don't mean anything."
Hoyer's supporters complained about such tactics.
"Commitment is something of value in this institution," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). "If you have somebody in this race saying, 'Oh, your promises don't really mean anything in a secret ballot,' that bothers me, and it should bother a lot of people."
Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Appropriations defense subcommittee, has been dogged by allegations that he has skirted ethical boundaries and has thwarted efforts to tighten rules on lobbying. Those questions were amplified yesterday after at least three attendees at the Tuesday-night meeting of Blue Dog lawmakers complained that Murtha had disparaged the Democrats' ethics and lobbying package.
"He said, 'You know, I believe it's total crap, but Nancy supports it, and I'm going to push it,' " said a senior Blue Dog Democrat and Hoyer supporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was divulging comments from a closed-door meeting.
Pelosi aides stressed that Murtha remained dedicated to the package's passage, but the dust-up rekindled memories of past Murtha votes. He was one of 12 Democrats to vote against campaign finance legislation written by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), and he was one of four Democrats who opposed an ethics package earlier this year that was designed to contrast the Democrats' tough stance with a weaker Republican bill. He also pushed a rules change to block outside groups from filing complaints to the House ethics committee.