Power struggles unravel Democrats’ unity

Times Staff Writers

Democrats returned to Capitol Hill on Monday to prepare for a transfer of power in Congress, but their postelection emphasis on unity quickly dissolved into power struggles and jockeying over the spoils of victory.

Much of the squabbling stemmed from the decision over the weekend by presumed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to endorse a longtime loyalist to be her second-in-command. In backing Iraq war critic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania for the post, Pelosi, of San Francisco, turned her back on another Democrat who is in line for the job and is favored by many of her party’s more moderate members.

In her first high-profile move after the election, Pelosi signaled that she can be expected to prize personal loyalty as she oversees the fractious party.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, whom Pelosi did not support for the No. 2 post, may have enough votes to win the job of House majority leader himself. Hoyer is the current minority whip.


“Everywhere you go on Capitol Hill today, this is the topic of conversation,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), who supports Hoyer. “It would have been easier for some of us not to have to exercise our independence quite so early.”

The House Democratic Caucus is scheduled to select its majority leader Thursday.

Pelosi may have another problem. As the crop of freshly elected Democrats -- including many younger ones who campaigned to the right of the party line -- came to Capitol Hill for orientation Monday, they encountered a leadership dominated by mostly liberal, old-school Democrats.

Cardoza, a leader of the conservative coalition in the House known as the Blue Dogs, warned that Democratic cohesion would suffer if the liberals in line to head many of the chamber’s key committees don’t take party moderates into account. “We have to try to build a consensus, and it’s not going to be an automatic, top-down way, or we’ll have conflict on the floor,” Cardoza said.

Despite such concerns, Democrats continued to celebrate recapturing the power they lost 12 years ago.

“Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s high-fiving,” said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), who is likely to become chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, plunged into a round of recriminations provoked by their election losses. House leadership contests were developing, pitting more conservative party members against those who have been at the helm.

“We did not just lose our majority -- we lost our way,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who is trying to oust Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as the GOP leader in the next Congress.


In his case against Boehner, Pence contends that public disaffection over the growth in government spending under the GOP-controlled Congress paved the way for the election losses.

The lame-duck session that brought members of both parties back to the Capitol this week will grapple with the year’s unfinished business -- including the need to pass a raft of spending bills that fund major government agencies. But much of the spotlight will be on the decisions that lay the groundwork for next year’s session.

The transfer of power in the Senate has been marked by minimal conflict within the parties. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, minority leader for the last two years, will be elected majority leader today. His chief lieutenant, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, will be majority whip.

Senate Republicans are poised to elect on Wednesday a new party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He will replace Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is retiring.


Significantly more drama surrounds the contests in the House.

Emotions and tensions are running high in the battle between Hoyer and Murtha. As in most congressional leadership elections, the outcome hinges largely on personal relationships, not ideology. But divisions over the war in Iraq are playing a part. Murtha, known as a strong supporter of the military, emerged as a hero of the left when he became a leading critic of the conflict a year ago; Hoyer has been more hawkish.

And even though Hoyer has served as Pelosi’s chief deputy, the two haven’t healed the split between them caused by past leadership fights. Still, many House Democrats were surprised that she went public with her endorsement of Murtha.

A Democrat close to Pelosi said she was motivated by her loyalty to Murtha -- a firm ally as she moved up the leadership ladder -- and her belief that Democrats would not have won control of Congress if he had not taken the lead in ramping up the party’s opposition to President Bush’s policy in Iraq.


Some argued that by publicly siding with Murtha, Pelosi could undercut one of her boldest pronouncements in the wake of her party’s victory -- that they would run “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history.”

These critics point to Murtha’s brush with the law in the 1980s, when he was investigated in connection with the Abscam bribery scandal on Capitol Hill. He was cleared in that probe, but some watchdog groups have continued to question his ethics. As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha has been an unapologetic master of “earmarking” money for local projects -- a practice the critics say invites corruption.

“John Murtha is not the right poster child” for a message that stresses ethics, said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the centrist Brookings Institution think tank.

Pelosi will make another potentially divisive decision in the coming weeks when she chooses the new leader of the Intelligence Committee. Her associates say she has decided not to elevate Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the ranking Democrat on the panel but a colleague with whom Pelosi has had strained relations.


Next in line for the chair is Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), an African American. He is backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, but some Democrats worry that he would undermine the party’s message on ethics because he was impeached as a federal judge in the early 1980s.

On other panels, Pelosi is expected to stick to tradition and allow seniority to dictate committee leadership choices. With that approach, Democrats will return the powerful positions to some lawmakers who held the jobs before the GOP takeover after the 1994 elections. Also, Pelosi has indicated that the principal forum for investigations and oversight will be the Government Reform Committee, to be chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

A key question is whether, under Democratic rule, committees will become throwbacks to the days when chairmen presided over insular fiefdoms that took little input from party leaders. Pelosi has made it clear that she expects panel chiefs to behave more like team players -- even if she does not impose the kind of discipline enforced by former Rep. Tom DeLay when he was a GOP House leader.

“She is not dictatorial like DeLay, but she has a game plan,” said Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), incoming chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.



Times staff writer Noam Levey contributed to this report.