WASHINGTON – In an early check on the power of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, her own Democratic caucus on Thursday rejected the anti-war leader she wanted as her top deputy and instead chose a Maryland moderate considered less polarizing.

Rep. Steny Hoyer defeated Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania in a lopsided 149-86 secret-ballot vote to become House majority leader. It was a show of loyalty to Hoyer, who’s spent years recruiting Democratic candidates and building bridges across the ideological spectrum. Hoyer also has worked cooperatively with Pelosi as her second-in-command since he lost a leadership challenge to her five years ago, something she’s never forgotten.

Thursday’s vote also reflected a widespread concern among House Democrats that Murtha’s ethical baggage and reputation for bullying outweighed his claim to a reward for helping Democrats win back Congress this year through his outspoken advocacy of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha, a Pennsylvania steel-country conservative and ex-Marine, is a longtime Pelosi loyalist, but that wasn’t enough.

One moderate Democratic congressman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pelosi’s backing of Murtha made her look petty and shook some members’ faith in her leadership.

“She owes Murtha a lot; she owes the caucus more,” he said. “A good leader knows when she has to tell a member no, even when it’s your friend.

“She’ll either get it and lead differently,” the congressman said, “or she won’t lead long.”

Speaking after the vote, Pelosi, Hoyer and Murtha all pledged to drop their rivalries and unite to pass legislation and pressure President Bush to change course in Iraq.

Pelosi, smiling tensely, insisted that she had no regrets about intervening on Murtha’s behalf. “I thought that would be the best way to bring an end to the war in Iraq,” she said.

She called Hoyer’s victory “stunning” and said, “we’ve had our debates, we’ve had our disagreements in that room, and now that is over. . . let the healing begin.”

Hoyer congratulated Pelosi on her pending January election as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. He called her “a person of deep values, keen intellect and extraordinary political ability.” As for Murtha, Hoyer said: “In my opinion, it was not that somebody was rejected today. It was that a team that had been successful was asked to continue to do that job on behalf of the American people.”

Murtha, fighting a grimace, congratulated Hoyer and said he’ll return to the House subcommittee on defense appropriations, where he’ll become chairman.

Pelosi has pledged to wipe out corruption and curb special-interest spending after a string of Republican scandals. But Murtha is a master of pork-barrel spending who was caught on video in the 1980 Abscam corruption probe rejecting a bribe but suggesting that he might consider a future deal if there was a benefit to his district.

“I don’t know how we move forward on ethical reform in Congress, which is desperately needed, when you’ve got this cloud hanging over Jack,” said Rep.-elect Baron Hill, D-Ind., before the secret-

Paul Herrnson, the director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said that Pelosi would’ve faced criticism if she’d abandoned her longtime ally.

“Politicians take loyalty very seriously, and if she had not displayed it, people would have seen that as a sign as well,” he said. “Now that it’s done I think (Pelosi and Hoyer) will find a way to work together. If they don’t, there will be hell to pay. The congressional Democrats will have a very hard time.”

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