Tensions are exposed by a Dem feud

Shortly before the July 4 recess, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, had a major dispute on the House floor with Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who was managing the debate over a pending bill.

Shortly before the July 4 recess, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, had a major dispute on the House floor with Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, who was managing the debate over a pending bill.

The blow-up raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle in part because Miller and Obey are two of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus and have been close allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

One person who noticed the heated exchange was House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). When asked about the floor spat, Hoyer said that his two colleagues both have “very strong personalities” and “very strong views.”

“They just happened to have different views at that time,” he said, lightly bumping his fists together.

Miller got angry because he thought Obey had struck an agreement with Republicans that would have cut Miller’s ability to employ delaying tactics to protest the bill under consideration, according to witnesses. As it turned out, Miller had bad information.

The bill under consideration was the science, state, justice and commerce measure, and Miller wanted to hold it up to highlight the economic plight of local fishermen because it did little to help them. Obey actually had done nothing to hurt his effort to protest the lack of money. But the quickness with which Miller flew off the handle at Obey was evidence of deeper tension, say Democrats who know them.

In fact, Miller and Obey have clashed many times.

“There’s something more there,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who had been working with Miller during the floor fight.

“It’s historic,” he said of tension between Miller and Obey, explaining that he just knew it without providing specific examples. A Democrat close to Obey confirmed that Miller and Obey have a history of clashing but noted that they always patch things up after their quarrels.

A simmering rift between Miller and Obey could be significant in internal Democratic politics. Miller is viewed as one of Pelosi’s closest political deputies, and while Obey has been in Pelosi’s camp in the past two Democratic leadership elections, an antagonistic relationship with Miller could make Obey more open to entreaties from Hoyer’s camp. Obey would be a big prize in any leadership contest because of the influence he wields as the highest ranking Democrat on Appropriations and because he is viewed as the “conscience of the House,” in the words of a Democrat close to Obey.

Obey’s importance is not likely lost on Hoyer, who met with Obey in his office shortly after Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) announced he would challenge Hoyer for a leadership position should Democrats recapture the House.

Pelosi and Hoyer have been viewed as rivals since they squared off in a race to become Democratic whip in 2000, a contest Pelosi won. The recent race for vice chairman of the Democratic caucus was, in many ways, viewed as a proxy fight between Pelosi and Hoyer, with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) viewed as Pelosi’s candidate and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) viewed as Hoyer’s.

The Pelosi-Hoyer rivalry appeared to flare up again when Murtha announced his intention to challenge Hoyer. Murtha is an important pillar of Pelosi’s support, and many Democrats say it’s implausible that Murtha challenged Hoyer without Pelosi’s tacit approval, or at least permission, according to several Democratic sources. Pelosi did, however, put an end to the short-lived race by asking Hoyer and Murtha to suspend their political maneuverings until after Election Day.

Speculation about a race to become majority leader in a Democratic-controlled House is not purely academic. Many political handicappers have said Democrats have a good chance of capturing the chamber.

One important question in such a race is whether lawmakers would view Murtha as a surrogate for Pelosi. If that were the case, Murtha could reap much of the leader’s support. But the early indication is that Pelosi’s strength would not necessarily help Murtha. Several influential senior Democrats who are thought to be strong supporters of Pelosi have already declared their support for Hoyer in a hypothetical race against Murtha.

Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, and California Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, the senior Democrats on the Government Reform and Ethics committees, respectively, have declared their support for Hoyer.

Obey would likely bring more votes than his own to whomever he supported in a leadership race.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that leadership candidates compete for a small universe of voters and every member of the caucus is important.

“Some members are more important than others and would be able to bring people with them — that would be the case with David Obey.”

Obey said any fights he’s had with Miller would not drive him from Pelosi’s fold of allies or affect his actions in a leadership race.

“That’s absolute BS,” he said. “I’m not going to connect things that are not connected.”

Obey said his disagreement with Miller was personal and had nothing to do with the Democratic caucus or caucus business and characterized his relationship with Miller as a “deep and abiding friendship.”

“Personal relationships are none of your business,” he said when asked what he and Miller sparred over. “Gossip bags out there blow things out of proportion,” 

For his part, Miller said there is no bad blood with Obey.

“I have a very frank relationship with him,” Miller said. “I’m a great admirer of his. I say if he didn’t exist we’d have to invent him.”

One former Democratic aide argued that Obey’s relationship with Murtha is more relevant to whom he would support in a leadership race than his relationship with Miller.

The aide said Obey and Murtha have a long-standing feud between them, a point that was confirmed by a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and by another Democrat close to Hoyer.

The rivalry stems in part from the early ’90s when Murtha worked hard to support former Rep. Neal Smith’s (D-Iowa) race against Obey for chairman of the Appropriations Committee. And Obey and Murtha have supported different spending priorities. Obey has championed education and healthcare, while Murtha has focused on defense. But the two lawmakers have grown closer in outlook in recent years.

Murtha has nearly a perfect record on labor issues and is as enthusiastic about government spending as Obey, the Democrat close to Obey said.

“It would be hard to find a social program he doesn’t support,” the Obey ally said of Murtha. Also, Murtha supported liberal ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, something Hoyer did not do.

In an interview, Murtha said that he spoke with Obey about his bid to become majority leader and that he thinks Obey would support him.

But if not, Murtha said, Obey only has one vote, noting that his support for Schakowsky didn’t make a difference in the race for vice chairman.