From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
At this rate, maybe it won't take Republicans too long to win their way back to majority status. For their part, they aren't lacking for ambitious colleagues like Sen. John McCain and former Speaker Newt Gingrich who are looking to lead them out of the wilderness under the banner of reform. For Democrats' part, their contest for House majority leader has posed an unexpectedly big distraction which has temporarily undercut their efforts to look like the clean alternative to the recently ousted GOP.
It hasn't helped Democrats that incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's endorsed candidate for leader saw his brush with the old Abscam scandal all over the news, then was quoted calling ethics reform "total crap." Addressing a group of moderate Democrats on Tuesday night, Rep. John Murtha said, "Even though I think the ethics bill is total crap, I'm going to work to pass it anyway because that is what Nancy wants."
"There's a lot of crap going on in Congress all the time," Murtha told MSNBC's Chris Matthews yesterday by way of explanation. "Guys violate the law, some do. But the problem we have is a few people violate the law and then the whole Congress has to be changed." He added, "I agree with what Nancy's trying to do... What I said was,... it is total crap that we have to deal with an issue like this when we've got a war going on..."
That, after Democrats campaigned against a "culture of corruption" throughout 2006, after they pledged to pass substantial lobbying and other ethics reforms during their first 100 hours in the majority, and after fed-up voters registered their agreement by ousting the GOP from the majority just nine days ago, citing corruption as a top reason why. Implosions in politics are often temporary (just ask Trent Lott), but first impressions are often lasting. Now's the time when Democrats, who were elected not so much because of their own ideas as because of Republicans' problems, should be treading extra carefully.
Both Murtha and current Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer claim they have the votes to win the job, which will be awarded by secret ballot. The Murtha-Hoyer bout is the only significant leadership contest on a day when Pelosi will easily get elected the first female Speaker-designate.
Meanwhile, McCain addresses two key conservative groups today. The Federalist Society's convention theme is "limited government," while GOPAC's website notes, "Many political observers credited GOPAC with being a key catalyst of the Republican Revolution that stormed the nation in 1994." Mixed in among more conventional appeals to the party base -- maybe some talk of judicial nominees with the former, and some visionary/big-picture stuff in the latter -- will likely be efforts to set himself up as the reformer. McCain also will file "John McCain 2008 - The Exploratory Committee" today.
Another Republican believed to have his eyes on the presidency who's now offering advice is Gingrich, who sent the House GOP ranks an unsolicited memo that is full of mentions of "we" and "us." Among the proposals he lays out: "focus on the country first and on Washington and the Congress second;" team up with the Blue Dog Democrats "to form a working majority and pass an agenda;" and, "establish new principles for appointing people to the Appropriations Committee. Nothing infuriated the Republican base more than the continued process of earmarks, set asides and incumbent-protection pork. There is no reason for the House Republican conference to reappoint a single appropriator unless they agree to be part of the Republican team."
Eric Wortman, spokesman for the Blue Dog Democrats, commented to NBC's Mike Viqueira about the memo, "We are not going to secede from the party... There isn't going to be a governing majority" of Blue Dogs and Republicans. On the other hand, one fairly senior Republican member tells First Read that he and, he thinks, some of his colleagues are paying attention to what Gingrich has to say.
McCain may be looking to another old hand to help him get his agenda through: just-elected Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, who returned to the leadership yesterday with McCain's help. NBC's Ken Strickland and Tony Capra report that McCain said yesterday that one of the reasons Republicans "suffered" in the midterms was because their leadership didn't get things done, and that Lott is "a result-oriented politician, probably the most result-oriented politician I have ever known." More: "We feel that one of the reasons why we suffered at the polls is that we didn't act on immigration reform. We didn't pass the appropriations bills. We didn't extend the taxes, do the things that people expect us to do."