WASHINGTON -- A raging internal struggle among House Democrats left Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland scrambling to prevail today in his bid to become party leader against a hard-knuckled campaign by Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi to install her ally Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans chose Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky yesterday to be minority leader. They also elected Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi - forced from the pinnacle of power four years ago over remarks perceived as racially insensitive - as the minority whip in an upset that underscores the unpredictability of intramural secret-ballot leadership contests.
The comeback win by Lott, who has had rocky relations with the White House since President Bush publicly rebuked him for his comments at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, was the latest display of independence by congressional Republicans, who increasingly see their interests diverging from Bush's.
It was also a reminder of the volatility of congressional leadership elections, on the eve of another closely watched contest: today's House vote, which is testing the Democrats' party unity. The secret balloting begins at 9 a.m. behind closed doors.
The election has become the first major challenge of Pelosi's leadership since Democrats retook the House last week. The California congresswoman endorsed longtime ally Murtha over the weekend and has been working intensely to sway Democrats to back his challenge to Hoyer.
"It's very important, not just as a test of her strength, but as a test of leadership," said Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia, who has been lobbying colleagues on behalf of Murtha. Pelosi "has to have the No. 2 person she wants."
Both sides said yesterday that a victory was within reach. Hoyer's lieutenants said his support was holding strong against what one called "thuggish" tactics by Murtha's camp, while the Pennsylvania war veteran's supporters called the race a "jump ball."
Hoyer, 67, has released lists of supporters that suggest he has most of the votes he would need to prevail. Murtha, 74, has indicated only a third as many public commitments.
But leadership elections are notoriously unpredictable. Murtha's backers hinted that he would draw far more support when lawmakers get down to voting.
"If you look back at the history of races, often times people's counts are off," said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California. "A lot of times they think they have the votes sewn up, only to be surprised by defeat, or a much closer race than they expected."
Both sides have focused particular energy on incoming freshmen, who are in Washington this week for orientation.
Hoyer's backers are promoting his work over the past two years campaigning and raising money for candidates nationwide to help restore the Democrats to the majority. They spent the last hours of the race yesterday "reminding people that their word is their bond, and that up here, that's all you have," one of them said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The outcome will be determined by the guy who's worked the longest, the hardest, for the most. That would be Steny," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.
Pomeroy recalled a trip Hoyer made to his state to appear on a bone-chillingly cold day atop a dike that needed federal reconstruction dollars. He said decades of such deeds would add up to a victory for Hoyer.
"I'll always remember that, and there's no way I'm not going to vote for Steny after that kind of commitment," Pomeroy said.
Murtha's supporters say his brash call last year to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq was crucial in galvanizing voter support for the Democratic victory. They speak of bringing his military credentials - he is a decorated Vietnam veteran who retired as a Marine colonel - to a House leadership that plans to make challenging the White House on Iraq a priority.
"This is not some inside-baseball, within-the-caucus, climbing-the-ladder election," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California. "This election is about one thing and one thing only, and that is what the response of the national Democrats will be to what the people of the country said on Nov. 7."
Murtha's camp continued to play down reports about the 16-term lawmaker's alleged ethical lapses. But the issue stayed current yesterday with a report in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that Murtha had told moderate Democrats this week that the ethics reform package that was a major plank in the Democratic campaign platform was "total crap."
Murtha said yesterday that his remarks had been misinterpreted. "What I said was, 'It's total crap, the idea we have to deal with an issue like this.' 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 a month we're spending" on the war, Murtha told MSNBC.
With the vote less than 24 hours away, supporters of each candidate continued to work the few dozen colleagues yet to commit their votes.
"As they say in the military, it's hand-to-hand combat," Eshoo said. "Both teams are working very hard."