WASHINGTON – A buoyant Rep. Steny Hoyer told a roomful of reporters Tuesday that he remains confident in his bid for House majority leader, despite the endorsement his opponent got from the House’s likely next speaker.
In a move that defied the predictions of congressional insiders, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., endorsed her close ally, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., over Hoyer for the No. 2 House leadership post in a letter released Sunday.
Last week, analysts agreed Pelosi would want to avoid an intraparty bloodbath and that Hoyer was an obvious choice for her chief deputy given their success in unifying the caucus when their party was in the minority.
Pelosi’s endorsement changes the dynamic of the race, said Jonathan Allen, a House leadership reporter for Congressional Quarterly.
The question now is how much power will Pelosi exert to privately push her colleagues to support Murtha, he said, though he declined to say whether that was happening.
Hoyer maintains that he has the support of the majority of the caucus and holds no ill will toward Pelosi, he said.
“Nancy Pelosi and I are friends. Nancy Pelosi is a very loyal person,” he said, citing her close relationship with Murtha.
Pelosi did have the courtesy to alert Hoyer that she would support Murtha, said Hoyer, adding he wasn’t surprised.
“After the election we’ll move on as we moved on after the whip’s race,” said Hoyer.
Hoyer lost a bitter battle for minority leader to Pelosi in 2002 before he was unanimously elected whip in 2003.
But the tensions between the two have been exaggerated, he said.
“The reports of dissension are much greater than the reality of the dissension,” said Hoyer.
More than 30 moderate Democrats endorsed Hoyer’s bid Tuesday, citing his loyalty to the party, especially to those members in marginal districts.
Two-thirds of the Blue Dog, or conservative, Democrats support Hoyer, according to his office.
“While being in the majority brings many opportunities, it will also create additional challenges, particularly for moderate Democrats,” the Blue Dogs and moderates said in an endorsement letter.
This looks good for Maryland’s longest-serving congressman, as moderate Democrats tend to be Murtha’s crowd on most other issues besides the war, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Several Democratic heavyweights including Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., John Dingell, D-Mich., and Barney Frank, D-Mass., also endorsed Hoyer last week, citing his success in uniting the caucus and his raising more than $8 million on behalf of Democrats.
But the likely swing voters in Thursday’s election could well be the 41 incoming freshman representatives, said Allen.
With his own district secure – Hoyer was elected to a 14th term with more than 82 percent of the vote – he spent much of the election season on the road campaigning for those freshman.
He stumped, recruited, and raised money in 33 states and participated in more than 315 events this cycle, according to the letter of endorsement from senior House members.
In her own letter of endorsement, circulated by Murtha, Pelosi saluted Murtha for his anti-war stance, crediting it with changing the national debate and making Iraq a central issue of the election.
“Your strong voice for national security, the war on terror and Iraq provides genuine leadership for our party, and I count on you to continue to lead on these vital issues,” said Pelosi.
But others have been more critical of the veteran congressman.
Liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has chastised Pelosi for her endorsement, calling Murtha “one of the most unethical members in Congress” for his coziness with contractors.
In a statement released Tuesday, Murtha dismissed the allegations as unfounded. He also took a jab at Hoyer.
“The Pelosi-Murtha position on the war is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today,” said Murtha. “Congressman Hoyer’s position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Senator John McCain, he advocates sending in more troops.”
But Hoyer isn’t taking his gloves off, describing Murtha’s statement as simply inaccurate and pointing out that he and Murtha have often shared the same view on Iraq, citing letters written to President Bush describing failed policy.
Hoyer’s confidence and cool-headedness in the seemingly hot race is a good sign that he has a lock on the votes, said Crenson.
A shrewd lawmaker, he knows that should he become majority leader, he will have to reach out to Murtha and others to unify the party in the coming weeks.
Hoyer said that his teamwork with Pelosi over the last four years has led to “the most successful Democratic caucus in the last half century” and that the two will continue to work together in the future because of shared goals and values.
“We know how to do it and we know that we need to continue to do it and we will,” he said.
Still, Pelosi’s involvement in Murtha’s campaign in the days before Thursday’s election by secret ballot will remain a key factor in the outcome, said Allen.
“We probably won’t know until all the votes are counted.”
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