Pelosi’s early setback has her party on alert

Times Staff Writers

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was elevated to the pinnacle of congressional power Thursday as fellow Democrats formally made her their choice as the next House speaker. But the same colleagues gave Pelosi a brusque lesson in the limits of her power when they rejected her choice for second in command.

In a battle that many felt Pelosi made unnecessarily bitter, House Democrats turned aside her personal pleas and arm-twisting and elected a Pelosi rival, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), to be House majority leader over Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).

Hoyer didn’t merely defeat Murtha, Pelosi’s strong preference, but trounced him in a 149-86 vote as House Democrats met to choose leaders in the wake of a midterm election that gave their party control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1994.

Democrats selected her as their choice for speaker, but she will not assume the post until the new Congress convenes in January and takes a formal vote.


Pelosi’s failed effort to anoint her own chief lieutenant fueled doubts among critics about the political skills she brings to leading her fractious party. It also sent a clear signal of what kind of leader she is: an old-style politician who puts a premium on personal loyalty, even at the risk of high-profile defeat.

Still buoyed by their election day victories, some Democrats were left wondering why Pelosi had injected herself into a bitter leadership battle with her last-minute support of Murtha over Hoyer, who had long been on track to claim the No. 2 job.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said a lot of members are wondering, “How did someone as good and as smart as she make this one mistake?”

Though Frank said he thought the episode would blow over, others saw it as a blunder that called for some serious fence-mending.


“The caucus is fractured in a way because of her involvement” in the leadership race, said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.). “Her big challenge, starting from this moment, is to figure out how to wrap her arms around the caucus. It was a mistake for her to get involved.”

A big factor in Murtha’s loss was the concern about ethics problems in his past and his reputation as a backroom dealer who is cozy with lobbyists -- a profile that critics said would undercut the anti-corruption message that Pelosi broadcast in the midterm campaign.

Some fear that Pelosi’s handling of the situation is a warning sign that her reliance on a close-knit circle of advisors sometimes blinds her to potential problems, such as the backlash against Murtha for his perceived ethics problems. Murtha was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1980 Abscam bribery scandal.

“It raises questions about her judgment,” said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution expert on Congress. “She did a good job helping Democrats back into the majority, then takes a stand that seems to weaken those very members who got elected by campaigning against corruption.”

Another challenge faces Pelosi in the coming weeks, when she is to choose a new intelligence committee chair. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) is in line, but some Democrats fear that he, like Murtha, will come under fire for past ethics lapses. Hastings was impeached as a federal judge in the 1980s.

People close to Pelosi say there is a one-word explanation for why she took the unusual step of weighing in on Murtha’s behalf: loyalty.

The daughter of a Baltimore mayor who practiced old-school machine politics, Pelosi is a strong believer in rewarding those who are loyal to her, through thick and thin. Five years ago, for example, she stood by then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres) when he was fighting for reelection amid allegations that he had had an affair with an intern who had mysteriously disappeared and was eventually found slain.

Though other Democratic leaders endorsed Condit’s primary opponent, Pelosi endorsed Condit, who had backed her in a hard-fought 2001 campaign against Hoyer to become minority whip.


That bitter leadership battle was also the root of the tensions between Pelosi and Hoyer -- and of her lasting alliance with Murtha, who managed her campaign for whip and helped her, a liberal, overcome the suspicions of more conservative Democrats.

When Murtha announced this year that he would challenge Hoyer for majority leader if Democrats won control of the House, Pelosi did not stop him.

Last November, Pelosi followed Murtha’s lead after the longtime hawk dropped his support for the war in Iraq and called for a U.S. withdrawal, a position that put both of them at odds with Hoyer. Pelosi believed Murtha’s leadership on Iraq helped change the national debate and contributed mightily to the Democrats’ victory on election day.

As Murtha campaigned for the majority leader post, hardly anyone doubted that Pelosi would back him. But it was not clear how far she would go with her support, or how publicly. Hoyer had been gathering chits for years. When Murtha’s vote count last week showed him far behind, he asked Pelosi to go public with her support, according to an aide close to the Murtha campaign.

Pelosi wrote a letter of support last weekend while she was in New York with her daughter, who was about to have a baby. Hoyer supporters were hoping the letter would just be a proforma endorsement for an old friend, but it turned out to be the beginning of much more.

Pelosi provided a powerful voice for Murtha in a group that was crucial to the outcome of the election: the 40-odd newly elected Democratic freshmen.

Hoyer was thought to have a leg up with that group, because he had been active in recruiting many as candidates. But Pelosi had another claim on their loyalty, as she had campaigned for many of them.

When those new members came to her to discuss their committee assignments, over which she will have control, she made a point of telling them she wanted Murtha to be majority leader. Some interpreted that as a threat of second-rate assignments if they voted for Hoyer. Pelosi aides said no threats were intended.


Pelosi understood that it was risky to stick her neck out, aides said: Win or lose, she would probably leave Hoyer and his allies embittered.

“She always says, ‘I’m a risk taker. I’m loyal to my friends, and I stick with them in difficult times,’ ” said a Pelosi aide, who, like other staff members, asked to remain unnamed in order to discuss the internal workings of the Democratic caucus.

The incoming House speaker apparently did not anticipate that Murtha’s past ethics problems would become an issue, assuming that it was ancient history.

But the past was resurrected by Murtha’s critics, and cable networks began to play decades-old Abscam videotapes that showed Murtha rejecting a bribe in a way that seemed less than definite.

Pelosi said after the vote that she had no regrets.

“I stand very, very proudly behind my endorsement of Mr. Murtha,” she said. “As I said in my letter to members on Sunday, I believe the biggest ethical challenge facing our country is the war in Iraq.”

Some Democrats said that the setback could send a message to Pelosi that rank-and-file members want her to reach beyond her inner circle and not try to run the party with top-down leadership.

“Loyalty can be blinding,” said a former House Democratic leader who did not want to be named for fear of offending Pelosi. “You can’t force somebody on people if they don’t want them.”

Others said the episode showed a side of Pelosi’s leadership that might be welcome when it came to battling the Bush administration.

“She’s gutsy as hell, and she’s willing to take chances,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). “She will push the envelope.”