Party gets a rocky start

Times Staff Writer

The Democrats put on their best faces after Thursday’s testy leadership fight.

“As we say in church, let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us,” Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi said after her choice for the No. 2 job in the House was soundly defeated. “Let the healing begin.”

But several admitted that the episode -- which saw Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland defeat Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania for House majority leader -- was a poor way to kick off their tenure as the party in control of the new Congress.

“These aren’t the headlines we wanted to generate,” said a Democratic lawmaker who spoke on condition that he not be named for fear of retribution from the leadership.


Pelosi’s backing of Murtha rankled many of her colleagues. It also ensured that as the party takes control of the House in January for the first time in 12 years, all eyes will be on any sign of friction between her and Hoyer.

Their ability to work together is critical. As second in command to the speaker, the majority leader “keeps the legislative trains running on time and the workers toiling at their posts,” as former Speaker Newt Gingrich put it.

The speaker -- second in line to the presidency -- is responsible for the workings of the entire chamber and plays the lead role in shaping the ruling party’s legislative agenda and political strategy.

Pelosi was unchallenged for the job.


Also elected to the leadership team Thursday was Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, who will become majority whip.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), architect of the House Democratic election victory, will chair the Democratic caucus.

Hoyer, 67, whose first name was his parents’ adaptation of the Danish name Steen, won his House seat in a special election in 1981. He worked his way up the Democratic leadership ranks, but lost the whip job in 2001 to Pelosi. Many Democrats believe Hoyer’s decision to wage that race was the genesis of her opposition to him now.

Hoyer became minority whip in 2002, after Pelosi succeeded Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri as minority leader; the two have held those posts since then.

In Thursday’s contest, Hoyer enjoyed the backing of a diverse group, from liberals to members of the Blue Dogs, a coalition of moderate and conservative Democrats.

Several Democrats said they voted for Hoyer because he already held the No. 2 job among them.

“I saw it as Steny’s turn,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.).

House Republicans choose their leaders today. The key race pits Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the current majority leader, against Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leader of House conservatives, for minority leader.


At least one Republican couldn’t resist weighing in on the Democrats’ selections.

“Hoyer winning is a slap in Pelosi’s face -- and I must confess, it makes me smile,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.).