Is Murtha An Ethics Blight For Democrats?

John P. Murtha, D-Penn, gestures to the crowd before he received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, Monday, May 22, 2006 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
In the House, a bitter battle is under way after Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would prefer Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania to be majority leader over her current lieutenant, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Critics accused Pelosi of backpedaling on a pledge to scrub the House of corruption.

The Democrats, after all, ran against what they called Republicans' "culture of corruption" this election cycle, CBS News' Capitol Hill reporter Evelyn Thomas observes.

Democrats also said they wanted to stop the avalanche of earmarks, which are inserted into bills just before they are voted on and which members often don't know about. Murtha is a very big believer in earmarks for his district and brings home lots of pork, Thomas says.

Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran who favors an immediate drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, has also fought charges for years of using his senior status on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee to award favors to campaign contributors. He voted against a Democratic package of ethics reforms earlier this year and was touched by — but never charged in — the Abscam bribery scandal a quarter-century ago.

CBS News Capitol Hill reporter Allison Davis explains that the Ethics Committee cannot investigate an allegation of anything that occurred more than three Congresses ago. Since Murtha's supposed involvement in the Abscam sting doesn't fall within those time limits, it might not be as much of a sticking point in his candidacy for House Majority Leader as one might think. Yet Abscam continues to follow Murtha, as it has since the first allegation surfaced.

Another thing to look for on the Murtha front in the 110th Congress is possible allegations that Murtha colluded with another member of Congress to prevent the Ethics Committee from pursuing allegations into his wrongdoing relating to Abscam, Davis reports.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democratic-leaning watchdog group, accused Pelosi of compromising her ethical standards by endorsing Murtha.

Shot back Jennifer Crider, Pelosi's spokeswoman: "House Democrats will lead the most honest and open Congress in history. Leader Pelosi has pledged to change the way business in Washington is done, and that's what she'll do."

The Baltimore Sun reports that Pelosi and her lieutenants are pushing Democrats to back Murtha. Some Democrats — freshmen and senior members eager to secure plum committee assignments — are said to be feeling intense pressure to commit themselves to Murtha or risk being blacklisted.

Rep.-elect Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who was summoned to Pelosi's office to explain why she wasn't backing Murtha, Hearst Newspapers reported.

"I thought we were above this type of swift-boating attack," Murtha said in a statement issued by his office, referring to unsubstantiated allegations about John Kerry's Vietnam War heroism from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential race. "This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress."

Murtha appears to be the underdog to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democrats' whip. Both Murtha and Hoyer claim to have commitments from a majority of Democrats, but the balloting Thursday will be secret and commitments often change.