Murtha in Command

After 16 undistinguished terms in Congress, Rep. John P. Murtha at long last felt his moment had arrived. He could not keep quiet the secret Democratic strategy that he had forged for the promised "second step" against President Bush’s Iraq policy (after the "first step" non-binding resolution of disapproval). In an interview last Thursday with the anti-war website, he revealed plans to put conditions on funding of U.S. troops. His message: I am running this show.

Indeed, he is. Murtha and his ally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were humiliated last Nov. 16 when the Democratic Caucus overwhelmingly voted against Murtha as majority leader. Three months later, Murtha has shaped party policy that would cripple Bush’s Iraq troop surge by placing conditions on funding. That represents the most daring congressional attempt to micromanage ongoing armed hostilities in nearly two centuries, since the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War challenged President Abraham Lincoln.

Murtha’s plan did not surprise Republicans. They were poised to contend that his proposed amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill would effectively cut off funding for the war, confronting moderate Democrats elected after promising voters to support troops. But the Senate rule requiring 60 votes to end debate, which prevented final passage of the non-binding resolution rejecting the troop surge, would not affect Murtha’s plan because appropriations have to be passed and cannot be filibustered.

Thus, unless there is an unexpected retreat of Democrats, Murtha will be driving U.S. policy. That is an improbable elevation for a congressman best known until now as a purveyor of pork. An ideological moderate (75 percent liberal and 40 percent conservative, according to recent ratings), he became a hero to the left by advocating "redeployment" of troops from Iraq.

That prompted Murtha to announce his candidacy for majority leader, which appalled Democrats who knew him well. Two prominent Democrats reminded me that Murtha was an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1980 Abscam investigation. He embarrassed himself on NBC’s "Meet the Press" last June by suggesting a redeployment of troops from Iraq to Okinawa. A year earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported firms represented by his lobbyist brother received funds approved by Murtha’s appropriations subcommittee.

None of this prevented Pelosi from endorsing Murtha for majority leader against heavily favored Rep. Steny Hoyer. When Hoyer won, 149 to 86, in the Democratic Caucus, Pelosi and Murtha were seemingly repudiated. But since then, Hoyer has appeared the odd man out in the Democratic caucus.

Murtha and Pelosi are setting party strategy in close collaboration with Rep. George Miller, Pelosi’s close associate and consigliere. Murtha has made clear that the non-binding resolution, whose merely symbolic nature infuriates anti-war activists, was only the "first step." Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, did not hide the purpose of setting standards for training, equipping and resting troops: "They won’t have the equipment, they don’t have the training, and they won’t be able to do the work."

When Murtha revealed the strategy, the House Republican staff quickly dispatched e-mails to GOP members that list Democrats who had campaigned last year against restricting support for troops in the field. The messages asked: "Will they side with Jack Murtha and their leadership in Washington, or with the promises they made to their voters?"

But only eight such Democrats, including six newcomers, were listed. Rep. Nick Lampson, who returned to Congress from Tom DeLay’s conservative Texas district, had said (according to the Associated Press) that "he opposes withdrawing until the Iraqi army is capable of controlling the country." Lampson declined to talk to me when I said I wanted to ask him about Iraq. Freshman Rep. Brad Ellsworth won election to a swing district in Indiana by saying (according to the Evansville Courier & Press) that "he would not support any measures that would cut funding for forces in Iraq." Ellsworth said he was "too busy" to talk to me after I said the subject was Iraq.

It seems all but certain that Democrats will pass what Murtha frankly calls an attempt to prevent funding of the surge. Improbable though it may seem, blunt and brassy Jack Murtha is moving close to command over U.S. policy on Iraq.