Dem division and dismay

House Democrats head to the ballot box today to elect their majority leader, with many of them fretting that the contentious race has split their caucus into two warring camps, one allied with Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the other with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), regardless of today’s outcome.

House Democrats head to the ballot box today to elect their majority leader, with many of them fretting that the contentious race has split their caucus into two warring camps, one allied with Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the other with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), regardless of today’s outcome.

The race has reinforced longstanding divisions between different factions in the caucus, members and observers said, and has diverted their attention from a positive message they hoped to project just days after winning control of the House.

“We’re trying to say it’s a new day, and unfortunately, we’ve started a new day with unnecessary controversy,” said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), a Hoyer ally. “Members see this as something unnecessary, something counterproductive, something that is sucking up all the oxygen in the room when we really need to work on improving the functioning of the House.”

Elated by their victory last week at the polls, many House Democrats were further encouraged by the harmonious resolution last week of a battle brewing for the post of majority whip, praising Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for brokering the compromise.

But on Sunday, Pelosi took a decidedly different tack by stepping into the majority leader race on Murtha’s behalf, a move that escalated an already vigorous contest. Two hundred thirty-one House Democrats will meet this morning at 9 a.m. to vote for their entire slate of leaders, although the majority leader position is the only contested race. They will first vote on a motion to allow Christine Jennings and Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) to vote. Jennings’s Florida race is still contested. Jefferson still faces a runoff.

Many Democrats were dismayed at the ever more heated and at times ugly battle between two of their most senior members, much of it playing out on national television.

Some Hoyer backers questioned Pelosi’s political judgment, arguing that the effort to “purge” Hoyer from the leadership would damage caucus unity.

“It’s a terrible way to start. It’s a lose-lose situation. Either way she has polarized the caucus,” said one House Democrat allied with Hoyer.

“You’re going to be more likely to question her after something like this that is so clearly bad for us and could have been avoided,” another commented.

The situation reminded more than one lawmaker of a remark made once by former Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.): “I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.”

A Murtha backer took offense at the suggestion that the battle would create long-lasting acrimony among members.

“I’ve been hearing that for six months, that it’s going to do damage to the caucus. Yeah, for about 30 seconds. Anyone who feels that way is a jerk. I don’t feel that way. If someone says that, they really don’t belong in politics,” said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), a Murtha ally.

“If this thing was about making an empress, I wouldn’t do it,” Capuano added.

Members will vote by secret ballot, making it difficult to predict an outcome.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a Murtha ally, said he could tell which members might ultimately switch their votes.

“You know when people are telling you what you want to hear. You know when they hem and haw … Who knows how it’s going to turn out, but we’ll be ready.”

Murtha himself was absent during House floor votes yesterday as he has been all week. Hoyer has not missed a vote.

As the sun set on the Capitol last night, both camps were executing their endgame. Murtha’s allies huddled in a Rayburn committee room to plot strategy. Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Robert Brady (D-Pa.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.), John Larson (D-Conn.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), as well as Capuano and Pascrell, attended.

Pelosi continued to meet individually with incoming freshmen members yesterday. Pelosi has been raising the majority leader race with freshman during the same introductory meeting where they discuss committee assignments.

“Some of the freshmen who came in with some naivete are understanding the meaning [of Pelosi’s endorsement],” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said Monday night. If they do not, “They’ll screw themselves for the rest of their lives.”

Both sides asserted that they had the necessary support, but the secret-ballot vote means that members may defect at the last moment without ever facing retribution.

Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said he expected some members not to honor the commitments they had made to the candidates.

“Ask anyone who’s ever run for a leadership position and they’ll tell you: Members lie.”

Brad Haynes contributed to this report.