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Murtha decries 'swift boat-style' attacks on ethics

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. John Murtha, the anti-war congressman who is the likely new House speaker's pick for majority leader, fended off what he called "swift boat-style attacks" on his ethics record Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Democrat also blasted his rival for majority leader, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, for siding with President Bush on Iraq.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who as the House Democratic leader is in line to be the next speaker, has backed Murtha against Hoyer, who is currently the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Democrats are slated to vote Thursday on who will take the chamber's leadership posts when the Congress reconvenes in January.

Hoyer insists he has commitments from a majority of the caucus. He picked up the public endorsement of a bloc of moderate Democrats on Tuesday.

The Maryland congressman also rebutted Murtha's accusation that he backed the war, saying he has sided with Democratic calls for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops.

Watchdog group frowns on Murtha

In routing the GOP in the November 7 elections, Democrats attacked what they called a Republican "culture of corruption."

Now a Washington watchdog group is questioning the party's sincerity, alleging Murtha steered Pentagon contracts to businesses that hired his brother as a lobbyist.

"How can Americans believe that the Democrats will return integrity to the House when future Speaker Pelosi has endorsed an ethically challenged member for a leadership position?" Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asked in a written statement. "Rep. Murtha is the wrong choice for this job."

Murtha told ABC in October that his brother "was treated like everybody else."

Murtha also turned up in the FBI's Abscam investigation in 1980, when undercover agents offered bribes to several members of Congress. Murtha was videotaped turning down a bribe "at this point," and he was not charged.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Murtha -- who just won an 18th term -- blasted critics who raised concerns about "unfounded allegations that occurred 26 years ago."

"I thought we were above this type of swift-boating attack," he said, referring to the largely refuted but widely publicized attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's military record in 2004. "This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress."

Murtha: War position led to victory

Murtha is a retired Marine colonel with close ties to the military and supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he stunned much of Washington when he called for a swift U.S. pullout in November 2005, a move Pelosi credited with making Iraq "the central issue" of Tuesday's midterm vote.

Murtha said Tuesday, "The Pelosi-Murtha position on the war is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today. Congressman Hoyer's position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Sen. John McCain, he advocates sending in more troops."

Asked about Murtha's remarks, Hoyer said, "That's not accurate."

When Murtha first called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq within six months, Hoyer warned that a swift pullout "could lead to disaster."

But Hoyer said he, Murtha and Pelosi are now on the same page and have signed letters to Bush calling for a change in U.S. strategy in Iraq in recent months.

"The message we have been sending is that we need to make it clear to the Iraqi government that the situation that currently exists is not sustainable -- that we have to have a change, that we're going to redeploy our troops, we're going to get them out of harm's way," Hoyer told CNN's "The Situation Room" on Monday.

A bloc of 33 Democrats from swing districts publicly backed Hoyer on Tuesday, saying he "deserves a lot of the credit" for the party's gains last week.

"Steny understands the challenges we face," they wrote. "He never questions our loyalty to the party, and he works hard to ensure that we are treated fairly."

When Hoyer unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for the Democratic leader's job in 2002, Murtha led Pelosi's campaign for the post. But Hoyer said he has worked well with Pelosi over the past four years and expects to continue that relationship as majority leader.

A leading Hoyer supporter, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, said Pelosi's endorsement appears to have had "very little" effect on the leadership race.

"From what I can see from talking to my colleagues, they greatly respect Ms. Pelosi's leadership and her judgment," said Dingell, the House's longest-serving member. "But most of them made commitments to Hoyer, and most of them are of the view he would be the best choice."

Dingell said the intramural battle "has a potential to be very hurtful" for the party as it prepares to take control of Congress.

But Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who is supporting Murtha, said, "That's the way democracy is."

"People are going to say bad things about you one week and ask you for a favor the next," Taylor said.

He dismissed the questions about Murtha's ethics. "If anyone felt like there was anything there, he would have been indicted a long time ago," he said.

Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed Iraq war critic John Murtha for House majority leader.



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