WASHINGTON -- Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Rep. John P. Murtha for majority leader yesterday, complicating efforts by Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer to move up in the leadership when the Democrats assume control of Congress in January.
In a letter released last night by Murtha's campaign staff, Pelosi lauded the Pennsylvania congressman's "courageous leadership" on Iraq. The race for the No. 2 post in the House, which comes to a vote this week, pits Hoyer, a business-friendly moderate from Southern Maryland, against Murtha, a former Marine who has become one of the Democratic Party's leading critics of the war.
The internal contest threatens to divide House Democrats on the eve of their return to power after 12 years in the minority. At stake, insiders say, is the image they will project to the nation - and how aggressively they will push for a troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Hoyer said yesterday that Pelosi had told him "some time ago" that she planned to back Murtha. He said he still has the votes to win.
"I respect her decision, as the two are very close," Hoyer said in a statement. "I am grateful for the support I have from my colleagues, and have the majority of the caucus supporting me. I look forward to working with Speaker Pelosi as majority leader."
Hoyer, 67, who as minority whip is the second-ranking Democrat in the House, wants to move up with Pelosi, the current minority leader, who is expected to become speaker in January. Hoyer has been calling in favors he earned during visits to 80 congressional districts in 33 states over the past election cycle. Aides say he has contributed or raised more than $8.2 million for Democrats over the past two years.
But Murtha, 74, a veteran of more than three decades in the House with strong ties to the military and the defense industry, is close to Pelosi - who has struggled at times with Hoyer. Liberals believe Murtha's calls to withdraw U.S. forces were crucial to last week's Democratic victory.
"He sends the right national message for the party, particularly after Tuesday's election," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts. "You can be both for a strong national defense and still understand that this particular war in Iraq, and the decisions that have gone into it, and all it symbolizes for this administration, have been wrong."
'A good team'
Hoyer supporters see his elevation to the post of Democratic leader as an important balance to the more liberal Pelosi.
The Marylander, less vocal than Murtha on the war, called Iraq "a very important issue." But he said he does not believe it will be the determining factor when the roughly 230 Democrats elected to serve in the new House cast secret ballots Thursday.
"Many members have said, 'Look, I think we have a good team. Obviously, that team took us back to the majority, and we ought to keep that team,'" Hoyer said last week. "I'm hopeful that members will conclude that I was a good chairman of the caucus, a good vice chairman of the caucus, that I've done a good job as whip."
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has been campaigning on his leadership on Iraq and his relationship with Pelosi. Murtha managed Pelosi's successful campaign against Hoyer for minority whip in 2001, a contest that strained ties between the two that have never completely healed.
It was Pelosi who pushed Murtha to issue his call last year for an immediate U.S. pullout, using his pro-military reputation as cover for Democratic doves at a time when the party, like the country, was divided over what to do next in Iraq.
"I've been involved in these jobs, involved in foreign policy, involved in defense, involved in synthetic fuels and alternative energy. I've been involved in health care," Murtha said last week on CNN.
Hoyer and Pelosi, who met in the 1960s as young interns in the office of U.S. Sen. Daniel B. Brewster of Maryland, have competed against each other for several leadership positions over the years.
They butted heads again last year over a Republican-sponsored bankruptcy measure. After Pelosi called for a rapid pullout from Iraq, Hoyer issued a statement warning of the effects of a precipitous withdrawal.
Hoyer said Democrats have now come to a consensus over the need to change direction in Iraq. He described his relationship with Pelosi as good.
"Both of us, I think, are core- value Democrats," he said. "That doesn't mean we don't have differences. We do. But we vote together much, much more often than we vote apart."
Hoyer joined Pelosi at the White House last week for a much- publicized post-election meeting with President Bush. But it is now clear that she would prefer Murtha as her top deputy.
In her letter to the Pennsylvanian, she wrote that "it was surely a dark day for the Bush administration when you spoke truth to power" on Iraq.
"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," she wrote.
Former House Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, a Hoyer ally, called the race a "sad commentary" on Pelosi's leadership - and a damaging distraction for the party.
Coelho said last week that it didn't make sense to allow Murtha, who was implicated but never charged in the Abscam congressional bribery scandal of the 1980s, to seek the No. 2 post after a campaign in which Democrats blasted Republicans for corruption and promised a more ethical House. Coelho resigned from Congress in 1989, amid questions about a junk bond deal with the firm headed by financier Michael Milken.
"Why should we be distracted from this great victory with this stupid fight?" Coelho asked. "A speaker steps in in these situations and says, 'Cut it out.'
"This should be a crowning time for Nancy and a crowning time for Steny. ... They've been a great team."
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey, a Murtha supporter, rejected that approach.
"We're not going to have a coronation," he said. "I believe that the major issue of our time is the war in Iraq, and it was particularly a courageous act for [Murtha] to come forward. ... He stayed with it, he took a lot of crap. He was swift-boated by the Republicans. And he withstood it all, in fact, became stronger. I mean, I brought him into New Jersey; he's like a folk hero to those who were against the war."
'A bridge builder'
Still, Hoyer has gained the backing of several leading liberals. His staff circulated a letter of support signed by Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, John Lewis of Georgia and Henry A. Waxman of California. Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Maxine Waters of California also have expressed support.
"Steny is a bridge builder," Lewis said. "He can work with the progressives, the moderate members and the [moderate to conservative] Blue Dogs. And we need that kind of person."
Former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas said political philosophy was unlikely to decide the contest.
"Leadership positions generally are determined on the basis of personal relationships with the members," said Frost, who chaired the House Democratic Caucus in the 1990s. "They tend to look at this as to who would help further their careers, their particular ambitions. ... Steny's done a lot for members over the years."
One such member is Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher of California.
"Before the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee could spell my last name," she said, "Steny was there to give me some advice and to help me raise some money in Washington and to kind of legitimize my race against a tough Republican incumbent."
A victory Thursday would make Hoyer the highest-ranking House member in Maryland history.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said a team led by Hoyer and Pelosi - a Baltimore native whose father and brother were mayors of the city - would be "tremendously helpful" to the state.
"Keep in mind that when it comes to issues affecting the Chesapeake Bay, issues affecting our city and our state, they already have a point of reference," said Cummings, who was rallying colleagues to support Hoyer.
"Certainly, they're going to serve the entire nation," he said. "But when there are issues that may require some sensitivity, they will already be familiar with what we're trying to do in Maryland."
Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.