Pelosi's Big Gamble

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Rep. John Murtha, D- Pa. and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. address the media in Washington, Friday, Sept. 29, 2006

There's a long list of reasons why the presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi could have decided not to pick a favorite in the race to be the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives. The Speaker customarily doesn't even vote on the House floor, so it would have been very easy for her to stay out of the fight, at least publicly. The candidate she just endorsed, Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, is a decided underdog in the race against Maryland's Steny Hoyer, who has served as the House Minority Whip since 2003, so Pelosi might suffer a defeat only a week after ascending to her current lofty position.

With Democrats doing their best to project the notion that they've found and embraced the center of American politics, what kind of message would it send if the party picked Murtha, a blunt confrontational figure who last year called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, over Hoyer, a leader of the moderate wing of Democrats in the House? And surely Pelosi, known to have frosty relations with Hoyer, whom she defeated in a bitter House leadership race in 2001, doesn't want to give the impression she'll dump any member of the Democratic leadership that she doesn't like.

So why did need Pelosi send a letter to her colleagues endorsing Murtha in this week's Democratic leadership elections? In one word, loyalty. The San Francisco congresswoman, first elected back in 1987, wasn't expected to become Speaker of the House, and one of the key factors in her rise in Washington has been Murtha, who has been a mentor and ally. Murtha was actually Pelosi's campaign manager in her 2001 race against Hoyer, helping convince more senior lawmakers that Pelosi was ready to be one of the party's top leaders.

"If John Murtha was running for dog-catcher or President of the United States, Nancy Pelosi would support him," one Pelosi ally told TIME. And Pelosi credits Murtha's call for troop withdrawal as a bold move that helped Democrats win last week's elections. Still, it's not entirely clear how strongly Pelosi will back Murtha; her letter doesn't actually ask others to join his camp, but simply points out that it is in response to Murtha's request for an endorsement.

While nearly everyone in Washington expected Pelosi to back Murtha privately, the public endorsement took many observers by surprise. Just last week, Pelosi worked hard to avert a leadership race between South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn and Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Both had talked about their ambitions to be the House Majority Whip, the No. 3 job in the leadership. Democrats on Capitol Hill worried about the fallout from black voters if Emanuel, widely credited for the party's win in the elections, defeated Clyburn, the only African American in the House leadership. By promising him a major role in the Democrat's policy-making in the new Congress, Pelosi convinced Emanuel to take the role of caucus chairman, the No. 4 job, and not run against Clyburn.

But neither Hoyer nor Murtha has dropped out of this race, leaving a potentially divisive race for Democrats just as they are trying to get their footing. It's particularly complicated for Pelosi, who is in the midst of another contest that could irritate moderate Democrats, as she is planning to replace the current head of the House Intelligence Committee Jane Harman, a hawkish California congresswoman (Pelosi says the post has a term limit, but Harman insists the previous Democratic Leader, Richard Gephardt, had promised her she would get to continue as the top Democrat on the committee).

Though the Pelosi-Hoyer tensions have largely stemmed from differences on policy — he's more of a centrist than she is — the Hoyer-Murtha matchup is much less simple. Murtha, despite his closeness to Pelosi, is a pro-life Democrat and actually more conservative than Hoyer, who is likely to get the votes of many liberal members who have backed Pelosi in the past. At a time when both parties are worried about pork-barrel spending, Murtha's longtime role on the House Appropriations Committee, where he secured members' votes with promises of getting special spending earmarks in their districts, could send the wrong message. Also, Murtha doesn't have the perfect record for a party trying to ease voters' concerns about Washington corruption; in the 1980s, he was investigated but not charged in a corruption case where eight members of Congress, including Murtha, were offered money by FBI agents posing as a representatives of a fictitious Arab sheik; ultimately six House members and a Senator were convicted in the investigation.

Hoyer has already secured commitments from a majority of the newly elected House members. Of course, if the presumptive Speaker weighs in strongly with members and makes the case that she would be more effective with her friend Murtha at the leadership table, that could weigh heavily in Murtha's favor. It could also get Pelosi off to a rocky start at the pinnacle of her career, forcing her to contend with some unhappy House members on her own side of the aisle.