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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Meet the new boss...

Trent Lott returns to power (although, as anyone who watches the Senate closely knows, he never really left). Joe Lieberman says he can't rule out caucusing with the GOP in the future. And, lo and behold, the Democrats in the House have revived the circular firing squad before they even get those new drapes installed.

It's bad enough that incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is allowing a schoolgirl spat with Jane Harman to push her into tapping sleazebag Alcee Hastings (who was impeached as a federal judge in 1989) as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Now, she's breaking arms on behalf of John Murtha's bid to be majority leader, and newshounds and partisans are hot on the trail of his ethical foibles, from Ye Olde Abscam to his most recent gaffe just this week, in which he referred to the vaunted ethics reform package Pelosi campaigned on as "total crap." Delightful. Howie Kurtz wants to know why nobody cared about this before, but apparently he missed this terrific article from October, in which the NYT spells out just how loyal Murtha is to his ultimate overlord: power.

Now, nobody's going to mistake Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's current top lieutenant and Murtha's main rival for the leader post, for either a Pelosi loyalist or a squeaky-clean do-gooder. Last year, when Democrats unveiled their ethics reform package, Hoyer was raising money for a House candidate in Florida (a winner, for what it's worth). Like Murtha, Hoyer's a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and he has been an equally staunch opponent of doing away with the pork-barrel feeding frenzy known as earmarking. In addition, Hoyer has been the leading proponent of Democrats' efforts to mimic the GOP's "K Street Project," courting lobbyists and ensuring a steady flow of campaign cash. Hoyer has occasionally gone out of his way to undermine Pelosi, and that has caused some bad blood between them, although both constantly deny it.

That said, Hoyer's a smart guy, a steady politician, a voracious fundraiser and a steady shoulder for newbie candidates. He's also the bridge linking the San Francisco Liberal to the Blue Dog Democrats and the more moderate wing of the Democratic caucus (a group that got bigger last week, in many cases thanks at least in part to Hoyer's efforts). As DLC strategist Marshall Wittmann once said, "it takes two wings to fly," and purging Hoyer at this point might leave Pelosi's aircraft struggling just to get off the runway.

And in the end, Hoyer's ethics only give off a vague whiff of corruption. Murtha, however, is a well-known stinkbomb. It's pretty obvious that anyone looking for a scalp from the new Democratic majority won't have to go far to notch the first one if Murtha wins the leader job. If Pelosi wants to be more than a historical footnote, she would do well to re-read the chapter filed under "The Rise and Fall of the Republican Revolution."

Update: Hoyer won, by an embarrassingly large margin. Nicely done, Nancy. But don't be fooled by the analysis that Pelosi now has an adversary instead of an ally at her side. Hoyer has always been something of an adversary. What will be interesting now is how he uses the political capital he just collected.


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