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The Murtha of All Political Battles

A local pol takes a necessary hit

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Down goes Murtha! Down goes Murtha! And just when Jumpin' Jack Murtha, the veteran Democratic congressman from Johnstown, was starting to think he was all that and a bag of chips.

I admire Murtha, because while every other wimpy lawmaker was hemming and hawing about getting the hell out of Iraq, Murtha took a bold and principled stand.

Let's start a phased withdrawal soon, he said: We need to let the Iraqi government know it needs to stand on its own two feet. As Jumpin' Jack put it, "We had our civil war; let them have theirs."

The Bushies started all that "cut and run" bullshit, but the Democrats won in November. Murtha wanted to be the new House majority leader, and Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi supported him.

But Pelosi apparently will not rule with an iron fist: In her first attempt to strong-arm her caucus, she was not-so-politely rebuffed. The winner is Steny Hoyer, a congressman from Maryland. He's perceived to be more moderate, balancing Ms. Pelosi's perceived leftiness. The rank-and-file apparently wanted to save the new speaker from herself.

Jumpin' Jack, a longtime, big-time defense department supporter, decorated Vietnam veteran, and classic Democratic wheeler-dealer, told reporters why he didn't win the post. "It's 'cause I didn't have the votes," he chortled.

It must be humiliating for Mr. Marine to lose to a guy named Steny, but it's a good thing for the Democratic Party. Because while appearing to actually care about kids getting killed and maimed (what a concept) was admirable, Murtha is in fact ethically challenged. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an organization that attacks mostly Republicans, is all over him like a cheap suit.

CREW points out that Murtha has a lobbyist brother. The Washington Post reported that Murtha earmarked $4.2 million dollars for a wireless networking company. The company was a client of his brother's firm.

According to the Post, Murtha also has a "special relationship" with a lobbying firm called the PMA Group. PMA and its clients steered almost $275,000 worth of campaign contributions Murtha's way in 2006. According to the Post, Murtha's appropriations subcommittee helped steer more than $95 million toward PMA clients.

Now you can argue that's politics, that's business as usual, and that Murtha is just doing what everybody does at this point. (Well, everybody who has the power and who chairs a key committee or subcommittee, that is.)

But Nancy Pelosi came into office claiming she was going to "drain the swamp." In other words, to get all ethical on your butt. She wouldn't be like those evil Republican lawmakers, like the recently busted Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who succumbed to the charms and bribes of Jack Abramoff. Nosirree, Bob: She would start with a clean slate and preside over the most ethical Congress in history. Those words don't quite jive with putting Jack Murtha in a leadership post.

And then there are those troubling Abscam tapes from the late '70s. Murtha's allies, like Congressman Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale), claim that Murtha has been "swift-boated" by allies of Hoyer and those opposed to Murtha's stance on Iraq. But the Abscam tape is kinda creepy in this respect. When an FBI agent met Murtha in a Washington, D.C. townhouse to offer him a bribe, Murtha didn't take it. That's the good part. But he also didn't necessarily indicate he'd never take it. That's the bad part.

When the undercover agent asked Murtha if he wanted money, Murtha said, "I'm not interested." If it had stopped there, all would be hunky and dory. But then Murtha put his foot in it: "-- at this point," he added. "You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't."

Maybe Jumpin' Jack, who claims he was just trying to get a legitimate investment in his district, was just toying with them. But it doesn't sound good.

And so the Democratic rank and file did it. They actually did save Nancy Pelosi from herself. Because the Democrats can't just talk a squeaky-clean game -- they have to actually squeak. Unless they want to look just like scummy Republicans who happened to be members of a different party.

Murtha, meanwhile, will look more credible when he speaks against the war, because the spotlight won't be on him quite as much. And that's a good thing.

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