Nancy Pelosi Elected Speaker, Bets on Murtha, Loses Big

Nancy Pelosi has been officially elected as Speaker of the House for the 110th Congress, which convenes in January. Her first act was a bold one, doubling down on her bet on John Murtha.

Pelosi also called for unity in the party, but within moments she put her prestige on the line by nominating Rep. John Murtha for majority leader — the No. 2 leadership post — in a hotly contested race. Voting in that race is underway. Murtha is running against Rep. Steny Hoyer, currently the party’s second in command, but long a rival to the new speaker-in-waiting.

I agree with Josh Marshall that “She’s staked her authority and credibility on a Murtha victory.” This is a bold move that could really establish her as a strong leader out of the box. It could also be quite embarrassing if the caucus goes against her. Steven Taylor is right: It’s certainly “a very odd and risky way to start a Speakership.”

Of course, it’s less risky and certainly less odd than bring Trent Lott back as the number two man on the Senate minority side and two-thirds of the failed House leadership team, as the Republicans seem to be doing.


House Democrats on Thursday chose Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer to be House majority leader over Rep. John Murtha, the choice of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record), in line to become speaker. Hoyer was elected on a vote of 149-86.

Stenny Hoyer Beats John Murtha, Embarrasses Nancy Pelosi House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md) walks into the House Democratic Caucus Leadership elections on Capitol Hill, November 15, 2006. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES)

The balloting marked a personal triumph for him, but also a snub to Pelosi, moments after the rank and file selected her unanimously to become speaker when the House convenes in January.

In a figurative sense, Hoyer is holding up a different finger altogether.

UPDATE: Bob Novak had a blistering column on this in today’s WaPo.

This is a no-win situation for Pelosi. If Murtha wins today, she will be accused of personal vindictiveness in derailing Hoyer, who is more popular in the caucus and better qualified for leadership. If Murtha loses, as is much more probable, she will be seen as bumbling her first attempt to lead the new Democratic majority. Pelosi could have avoided this dilemma by standing aside as Newt Gingrich, then the presumptive speaker, did when he voted for his ally Robert Walker as majority whip but did not ask members to oppose Tom DeLay.

Pelosi’s mistake confirms long-standing, privately held Democratic apprehension about her abilities. Such concerns do not reflect the Republican indictment of her as a reflexive San Francisco liberal. Some of her most trenchant congressional critics are on the left wing of the party. These colleagues worry that her decision making may be distorted by personal considerations.

Hoyer is the most accomplished Democratic legislator in the House, widely respected on both sides of the aisle. He, not Pelosi, would be preparing to be speaker had he not lost to her in a 2001 contest for minority whip, thanks to nearly complete support from her huge California delegation. That put Pelosi ahead of Hoyer on the leadership escalator. While Hoyer would win a secret poll of the Democratic caucus as more qualified, Democrats cannot turn aside the first female speaker.

Carl Hulse also noted questions about Pelosi’s decision in today’s NYT.

House members acknowledged on Wednesday that the increasingly bitter contest for majority leader was sullying the image of unity and new direction that Democrats hoped to convey. “It’s four days that we haven’t talked about our message and built on the euphoria,” said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat who is supporting Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland in the leadership vote on Thursday. “We had such perfect pitch last week.”

Downtrodden Republicans were enjoying the spectacle of the split between Representative Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker, who is publicly pushing Representative John P. Murtha, her longtime ally, and Democrats rallying behind Mr. Hoyer, who has served in the leadership slot beneath Ms. Pelosi for four years. “I can’t believe they are self-destructing before they even get started,” said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. “Everyone on our side is giddy.”

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    And she went down. Hard.

  2. Mack says:

    I don’t think the stories are right. The Speaker is elected by the whole house. The Democratic caucus has chosen Pelosi as its candidate, but until the whole house votes, she is just a nominee. If the GOP picks an acceptable Dem who could pull 20-30 Dem votes, they could beat her, and that would be the sweetest revenge of all.

  3. Christopher says:

    Yes, I was wondering that, too. I think there are special congressional rules they follow-it’s not a straight up or down full house or senate vote for speaker, only the party caucus matters. But the new members are not even sworn in yet until next year. How does that work???

  4. Mack,

    Technically, you are correct. In practical terms, however, that isn’t going to happen.

  5. Billy says:

    This was a mistake on the part of Pelosi, even before it was clear she was going to lose, largely because of Murtha’s history on ethics (not to mention his comments on the forthcoming bill). It will be interesting to see how she recovers from the obvious rebuke from the caucus.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Nothing wrong with this outcome. Murtha is a divisive figure and his ethics baggage made him a questionable choice for the job. And having Pelosi reminded that she does not hurl thunderbolts is not a bad thing…

  7. Michael says:

    Why does everyone assume that Pelosi was banking on Murtha’s win? Murtha supported Pelosi’s campaign for minority leader, so now she is repaying that by supporting Murtha’s campaign. Nobody on the left of the blogosphere seems to think that A) this was ever a “hotly contested” campaign, or that B) the democratic party has been split by this. Instead Pelosi gets points for loyalty, not all House leaders need to rule with an iron hammerfist.

    So Pelosi supported Murtha, but the majority of the caucus supported Hoyer. Hoyer won, nobody seems very surprised by that, and everyone seems accepting of that. It’s democracy in action, why does everyone here always assume that democracy is a bad thing?

    Mack, if the Republicans voted for a Dem who actually won, who would they complain about on talk radio for the next 2 years?

  8. Brian says:

    I don’t see how this is sullying the image of unity. Pelosi decided she wanted a bitter fight amongst her party over something that certainly wasn’t worth it and while they didn’t call for a vote or anything, all signs indicate that the Republicans overwhelmingly agreed that that would be an excellent idea.

    Am I the only one who thinks the next two years might be kind of fun? Between Pelosi running this circus and Hillary running for President … imagine all the blog-fodder that’s headed our way!