By Robert D. Novak
WASHINGTON - 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
MoveCongress.org, he revealed plans to put conditions
on funding of U.S. troops. His message: I am running this
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
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.