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Murtha Bid for House Leadership Post Faces Opposition

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This week, Congress is choosing its leaders, and for some it's a chance for a second act. Senate Republicans voted yesterday to make Trent Lott minority whip. Four years ago he had to leave a leadership position, and we'll have more on that in a moment.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats may elect a leader who has had problems in the past. The race to succeed Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader has been heated and nasty. It pits two veteran Democrats, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and John Murtha of Pennsylvania, against each other. Pelosi has endorsed Murtha, whose call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq she says helped Democrats win control of the House. Critics, though, have raised questions about whether Murtha is the best face for a party that also ran on a promise to end the culture of corruption.

NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: For Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan, the choice is simple. He's backing John Murtha for majority leader. The reason is Iraq.

Representative MARTY MEEHAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): When he stood up and called for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, I think that intensified a national debate over the war. And you know, this is someone who has the respect of the military community.

NAYLOR: When John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, called last November for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, people paid attention. That's the Jack Murtha his supporters believe should be the next Democratic leader. But it's this Jack Murtha that has his critics up in arms.

(Soundbite of recording)

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I expect to be in the (bleep) leadership of the House, and if you have anything set against you, then you've got a problem.

NAYLOR: That's the Murtha that 26 years ago was taped with an undercover FBI agent, refusing but not totally closing the door on a $50,000 bribe; part of the ABSCAM investigation.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rep. MURTHA: I'm not interested.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Rep. MURTHA: At this point.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Rep. MURTHA: You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know?

Unidentified Man: Okay.

NAYLOR: Murtha says he was just trying to keep the conversation going as a way to get jobs for his Pennsylvania district, and he was not charged in the case, though he was named an unindicted co-conspirator. To critics, it's part of a pattern. Murtha, they say, is hardly the guy you want in charge of draining the swamp, as Nancy Pelosi repeatedly promised to do should Democrats win control of Congress.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says electing Murtha leader would be the wrong way for Democrats to start their new majority.

Mr. NORMAN ORNSTEIN (American Enterprise Institute): Mr. Murtha is, to put it gently, ethically challenged. And you can go back to the now-available full 53 minute and 40 second ABSCAM tape or you can move forward to the reality that Murtha virtually single-handedly killed a tough Democratic lobbying and ethics reform package in return for earmarks.

NAYLOR: Just the other night, according to the Web site of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Murtha told a group of conservative Democrats the ethics reforms proposed by Pelosi were, in his words, total crap. Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball last night, Murtha explained his comments this way.

Rep. MURTHA: What I said was it's total crap, the idea that we have to deal with an issue like this when we've got - and it is total crap that we have to deal with an issue like this when we've got a war going on, and we've got all these other issues. Eight billion dollars a month we're spending.

NAYLOR: And Massachusetts Congressman Meehan, who has made a career on ethics and campaign finance reform issues, is convinced Murtha is sincere.

Rep. MEEHAN: I have had conversations with him about ethics and lobby reform. He has said that he intends to embrace the piece of legislation that I've been working on with Nancy Pelosi, and that's what we need in a majority leader.

NAYLOR: There's a lot riding on this race for Pelosi. She's backed Murtha out of a sense of loyalty and has not forgotten that Hoyer challenged her for a leadership position in 2001. Should Hoyer win this time, at the least it will be an embarrassment for Pelosi, but if Murtha prevails, her vow to make this the most ethical Congress in history will be questioned before the first vote is cast.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.