Robert 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, 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.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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