Pelosi backs Democrat tainted by scandal for top position

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Barely a week after becoming America's first female Speaker-designate, Nancy Pelosi has put her prestige on the line by backing a controversial candidate in the battle for the post of House majority leader in the new Democratic Congress, which convenes for the first time in January.

The 230-strong incoming Democratic caucus must choose, for the second-ranking job in the House, between Steny Hoyer, the outgoing minority whip, and John Murtha, the veteran Pennsylvania Congressman and Iraq war opponent, who, most unusually, has had a public endorsement from Ms Pelosi herself.

In a way, her move makes eminent sense. Mr Murtha is a close political ally, who backed Ms Pelosi in her 2002 leadership race with Mr Hoyer. He then became a hero for the left when he called in 2005 for the early withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The demand, by a Congressman known for his strong ties with the Pentagon, is widely credited with turning the tide of sentiment here against the war, embarrassing the Bush administration and helping pave the way for the Democratic sweep on 7 November.

But there is a major problem: the long-standing odour of corruption that surrounds Mr Murtha at a time when Ms Pelosi has vowed to run "the most honest, the most open, the most ethical Congress in US history". At the midterm elections voters said that corruption in Washington was, along with the Iraq crisis, the main thing on their minds.

Mr Murtha, who has represented his Pennsylvania district for 32 years, was embroiled (though not convicted) in the 1980 Abscam scandal, an FBI sting that led to convictions for bribe-taking against one senator and five congressmen. Last month, a New York Times article described him as operating "a political trading post" on Capitol Hill, and a watchdog group has listed him as among the 20 most corrupt members of Congress in its 2006 list.

The outcome of the majority leader race is anyone's guess, with Mr Hoyer claiming that, despite Ms Pelosi's support for his opponent, he had the votes to win. Either way, she stands to lose. A Murtha victory could seem to give the lie to her professed determination to clean up Capitol Hill. And a Hoyer victory would be seen as a personal defeat that exposed the limit of her clout.

But the episode has given a glimpse of the Pelosi style, inspired by the old East Coast machine politics she grew up with, as the daughter of a long-time mayor of Baltimore, based on personal loyalty and on favours returned for favours given. Nor is it the only one.

Ms Pelosi has reportedly decided to block Jane Harman, another Californian Democrat, from heading the highly sensitive House Intelligence Committee, where Ms Harman was senior Democrat while her party was in the minority. The move is said to reflect personal animosity between the two, as well as Ms Pelosi's belief that Ms Harman was insufficiently tough on the Republican administration for its manipulation of pre-war intelligence.

Unfortunately, the next Democrat in line for the job is Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge once impeached for bribery. Mr Hastings is also black, and to pass him over would risk Ms Pelosi upsetting the influential Democratic black caucus on Capitol Hill.