Rep. John Murtha dies at 77

Rep. John Murtha, a legendary Pennsylvania lawmaker and close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, died Monday.

Murtha (D-Pa.) was admitted to the Virginia Hospital Center last week following complications from gall bladder surgery, which he underwent last month.
His office said in a statement that Murtha “passed away peacefully” at 1:18 p.m. His family was at his bedside.

The 77-year-old chairman of the House Appropriations Defense panel was a strong voice on military matters in Congress and a close friend of Pelosi’s (D-Calif.), helping her rise in the party leadership.

“Jack Murtha was a giant.  All who served with him were honored to call him colleague.  I was privileged to call him friend,” Pelosi said in a statement.

The White House flew its flag at half-staff on Monday to mark Murtha’s passing. President Barack Obama praised Murtha’s dedication to public duty.

“His passion for service was born during his decorated career in the United States Marine Corps, and he went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress.  Jack’s tough-as-nails reputation carried over to Congress, where he became a respected voice on issues of national security,” Obama said in a statement.

On Saturday, Murtha became the longest-serving member of Congress from Pennsylvania.

Murtha, known as a defense hawk, made his voice heard on U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. In 2005, the 19-term lawmaker became a household name after publicly recanting his 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war and threatening to shut off funding for the war from his perch as defense appropriations cardinal.

Murtha also questioned  Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, expressing skepticism as to the success of the military mission. Murtha would have been a pivotal voice in the congressional debate over the issue this spring.

"I've known Jack and worked with him for more than two decades, starting back in the Reagan administration when I was at CIA.  I will always remember and be grateful for Congressman Murtha's personal efforts on behalf of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviets - efforts that helped bring about the end of the Cold War.  In our dealings over the years, Jack and I did not always agree, but I always respected his candor, and knew that he cared deeply about the men and women of America's military and intelligence community," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement.

The news of Murtha’s death came on a day when Washington was paralyzed from a large weekend snowstorm.

To his colleagues in the House, Murtha cannot be replaced.

“Jack’s shoes will not be filled, because he was a one-of-a-kind public servant and a rare breed of American whose love of country ran as deep as anyone I know,” Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said in a statement. “Before Congress adjourned each week I would kiss my friend Jack on the cheek and we would share a smile over the week’s stories and the variety of issues we had to look forward to in the coming days. Sadly, the last time we exchanged our friendly goodbyes was our last goodbye.”

“I am deeply saddened to lose my dear friend and colleague Jack Murtha. He was a public servant in every sense of the word and his passing is a great loss to all of Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) mourned Murtha’s passing.

“Today, our nation has lost a decorated veteran and the House of Representatives has lost one of its own,” Boehner said in a statement. “I also want to express my condolences to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who valued Congressman Murtha’s advice and friendship. He will be missed.”

The former Marine, who fought in the Vietnam War, had been a steadfast supporter of the military and the defense industry. Murtha was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress, coming to Washington after winning a February 1974 special election.

“He understood the misery of war,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). “Every person who serves in the military has lost an advocate and a good friend today.”

Murtha has been credited with bringing economic development to his once-depressed district, an area rocked by the loss of steel and coal jobs over the last two decades. Johnstown, Pa., now has a Murtha airport, a Murtha highway and Murtha health centers.

One of the most telling symbols of Murtha’s congressional power is Showcase for Commerce, one of the country’s most popular technology trade shows, which transformed Johnstown into one of the defense industry’s major regional hubs. The show became an annual draw for those in defense circles who knew that Murtha had the sort of influence that could make or break their business.

While Murtha was highly respected for his firsthand knowledge of military and national security issues, he was also known as the lawmaker who helped his colleagues get funding for earmark projects.

He could often be seen sitting in his seat on the House floor, dubbed “Murtha’s Corner,” holding court with several members surrounding him or passing him notes.

During times of Republican leadership of the House, Murtha was known for delivering Democratic votes in exchange for the funding of pet projects.
The former Marine drill instructor also left his mark with his unfiltered remarks and statements and his uproarious laughter.

Once thrown into the limelight with his opposition to the Iraq war, Murtha, who was used to backroom deliberations, invited scrutiny to his congressional actions, particularly to the millions in earmarks he brokered for his district as part of the defense appropriations bill.

But the lawmaker never shied away from expressing his convictions. To this day the former Marine has been scoured for saying in 2006 that several Marines killed civilians “in cold blood” in Hadditha, Iraq.

In 2006, Murtha challenged Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for the House majority leader post, but lost despite having Pelosi’s full backing. Murtha was critical to Pelosi’s rise in power. In 2001, he managed her campaign for House minority leader against the more senior Hoyer.

Murtha also faced his share of controversy, perhaps most intensely over the last year. It was Murtha’s close relationship with the defense industry that came under fire in 2009, when reports surfaced that the FBI had raided the PMA Group, a defense-lobbying firm with strong ties to Murtha. Many of the now-defunct PMA’s former clients are clustered in and around Murtha’s district.

The Office of Congressional Ethics cleared Murtha and recommended that the House ethics committee not pursue an investigation.

Murtha’s death leaves the chairmanship of one of the most powerful committees empty and will prompt a reshuffling as Congress starts considering the approval of billions in Pentagon dollars. Following Murtha in seniority is Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who now chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

“He was a strong leader and an exceptionally fair chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and I enjoyed serving with him on that panel for 31 years.  He was a ‘hands-on’ chairman, routinely traveling to areas of conflict where American troops were deployed, and I accompanied him on many of those trips,” Dicks said in a statement. “The country has lost a real patriot; the Congress has lost a real workhorse; and I have lost a great friend.”

Murtha leaves behind his wife of 54 years, Joyce, his three children and three grandchildren.

This story was originally published on February 8th, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.