House Democrats trade Iraq charges

Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Injecting the Iraq war into the escalating fight for the No. 2 spot among House Democrats, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania on Tuesday attacked his opponent for not backing a push last year for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland disputed the criticism of his position on the war. Murtha’s charge was an effort to turn an antiwar message central to Democratic gains at the polls last week into a wedge issue in determining the party’s leadership as it prepares to take control of the House in January.

Murtha’s broadside also raised the prospect that the showdown with Hoyer for the majority leader’s post would have a larger ideological element than often is the case. Usually, the leadership contests turn more on matters of personality and style than issues.

House Democrats are scheduled to select their leaders for the next Congress on Thursday.

The Murtha-Hoyer contest already was an acrimonious note amid the joy among House Democrats after they picked up more than two dozen seats in the midterm election.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who as the head of House Democrats is in line to become the chamber’s speaker, surprised some of her colleagues by publicly endorsing Murtha over the weekend.

Hoyer has served as Pelosi’s chief lieutenant in the Republican-controlled House and has enjoyed broad support in his bid to continue in that role as majority leader. But Pelosi and Hoyer have never been close, though Murtha is a longtime Pelosi ally.

Murtha, a former Marine and staunch supporter of the military, gained national attention a year ago when, at a Capitol Hill news conference, he excoriated the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and called for troop withdrawal to begin.

Hoyer was not among the Democrats who rallied to his side, and that formed the basis of Murtha’s criticism Tuesday.

A statement issued by Murtha’s office said, “The record is clear: Jack Murtha has been a constant voice for change in Iraq and Steny Hoyer has not.”

A Murtha spokesman added that the lawmaker’s position on the war, backed by Pelosi, “is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today” in Congress. “Hoyer’s position has been to ‘stay the course’ with President Bush from the very beginning.”

A Hoyer spokeswoman dismissed Murtha’s accusation, saying, “Any representation that Congressman Hoyer endorses a ‘stay-the-course’ strategy or advocates sending more troops to Iraq is wrong.”

Later on Tuesday, Hoyer’s office released a letter of support for him in the leadership race from nine senior Democratic House members who are expected to become powerful committee chairmen in January. They included Ike Skelton of Missouri, who is expected to lead the House Armed Services Committee, and Tom Lantos of Burlingame, the likely head of the House International Relations Committee.

The House GOP also face an ideological choice when they select leaders Friday.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who took over as majority leader after Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas resigned, is battling to retain his leadership post. But the party’s election losses are helping fuel a challenge by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, seen by many as a more doctrinaire conservative than Boehner.

Senate Democrats, facing none of the jockeying that is dividing House members, on Tuesday quickly selected Nevada’s Harry Reid to be the new majority leader and Illinois’ Richard J. Durbin to serve as his deputy.

The two men — with New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who will assume the leadership’s No. 3 position — played key roles in engineering the party’s election-day gains that surprised most experts and gave it the majority in the next Senate.

Democrats also designated their new committee chairs, with California’s two senators among them. Barbara Boxer will head the Environment and Public Works panel; Dianne Feinstein will head the Rules Committee.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans will choose their new Senate leader today. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who served as majority whip under outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, faces no competition in his bid to become minority leader. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi is challenging Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee for the No. 2 post.