As Spotlight Dims, Murtha Still a Player

Posted April 18, 2008 at 6:19pm

By Jennifer Yachnin

Roll Call Staff

While Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) might have yielded the national stage in recent months in favor of his more traditional role in the chamber’s corner seat, his House colleagues assert he hasn’t ceded influence, only attention.

“He’s getting just as much done as he always does. This is a typical year for Mr. Murtha, not an atypical year,” said fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle (D).

Murtha spent much of the 110th Congress in an unfamiliar place –– the media spotlight, catapulted by his opposition to the Iraq War and his bid to join elected leadership. He has largely returned to a background role in recent months.

Members and Democratic aides say one reason for the change is that the ailing economy has drawn attention away from the Iraq War –– and Murtha along with it.

“That’s more his M.O., to be in the background,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which Murtha chairs. Moran added: “Normally, he’s not our orator; he’s our puppet master.”

Murtha’s Democratic colleagues dismiss the idea that the moderation in his public appearance is in any way the result of House leaders putting the 75-year-old Pennsylvanian on a short political leash.

Even as House debate over the use of earmarks heated up this year, Murtha held an annual fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City that was widely attended by lobbyists and defense contractors dependent on earmarks. His subcommittee is a haven for pork projects, and his Johnstown, Pa.-based district is a major earmark beneficiary.

Congressional watchdogs have criticized Murtha, noting that every private entity that received a special project from the Democrats in last year’s Defense spending bill had donated political money to him since 2005.

But as one well-placed Democratic source said: “No one can pull Murtha back.”

While Murtha holds no official position in the Democratic leadership, aside from his being an Appropriations cardinal, he is considered to be among Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) closest advisers –– so much so that she encouraged his bid for the No. 2 post after Democrats won the majority in the 2006 elections.

In the wake of that failed attempt at official leadership, Murtha nonetheless remained in the headlines in large part for his opposition to the Iraq War. In the midst of the House debate over a resolution opposing President Bush’s proposed troop increase, Murtha unveiled on an anti-war Web site his plan to curtail the war via the appropriations process.

Subsequent debate on the spending bill would keep Murtha in the limelight, as would his aggressive defense of Pelosi’s request to use a military plane to travel to and from her California district.

But the Pennsylvania lawmaker has since slowly reversed to his customary role, wielding his powers as a cardinal and managing affairs from his corner seat in the House chamber.

“All you have to do is look at the corner. There’s still plenty of people over there,” said Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who also serves on the Subcommittee on Defense. “The light is always going to be on him because he’s such a dynamic figure in the defense area.”

Murtha himself credits the drop in attention to the contentious presidential campaign, as well as a new forward-looking effort to end the war. “We’re trying to look beyond Iraq,” Murtha said, citing efforts to rebuild military resources strained by the ongoing conflict. “The spotlight is on the presidential candidates.”

Yet, the change has not kept Murtha entirely out of the news.

The 18-term lawmaker made waves last week when he asserted that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), four years his junior, might be too old to take on the presidency.

“Let me tell you something, it’s no old man’s job,” Murtha said, according to The Associated Press. He made the remarks at an event for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who he endorsed over Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Looking ahead, however, Murtha said he will not repeat the effort that moved him onto center stage in late 2006, vowing not to challenge sitting Democratic leaders for their posts after the November elections.

“I’m satisfied with where I am. I love the job,” he said. “As long as they re-elect me, I’ll stay right where I am.”

That decision is unlikely to surprise Murtha’s closest allies, who acknowledge the media attention generated by the 2006 leadership race caused the Pennsylvanian some discomfort.

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) asserts that while Murtha made no effort to duck his recent celebrity, it is not something he has embraced.

“The spotlight was new to him the last couple years. He doesn’t shy from it,” Capuano said. “Some guys around here seek the spotlight. Jack isn’t one of them.”

In fact, before announcing his opposition to the Iraq War, Murtha was perhaps best known — outside of the Appropriations panel — for his involvement in the ABSCAM scandal of the 1980s. Murtha was not charged in that investigation, but the topic periodically resurfaces, most recently during his challenge against Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for that leadership post.

In the meantime, Murtha’s colleagues describe his relationship with Pelosi as strong, as is his informal role as a top adviser. “Nancy still depends on him,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.).

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said: “He is a trusted friend and an expert on defense and national security issues, and his advice to the Caucus and the Speaker on bringing the war to an end in a responsible manner is invaluable.”