WASHINGTON — Veteran Washington congressman Rep. Norm Dicks will likely ascend to one of the most powerful jobs in Congress following the death Monday of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
Murtha, a decorated former Marine whose strong opposition to the Iraq war helped catalyze public sentiment against the conflict, died Monday at age 77 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va. He had been hospitalized for a little more than a week with complications from gallbladder surgery.
Dicks, D-Wash., is in line to succeed Murtha as chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing the Pentagon’s annual budget, giving him say on funding for veteran’s services and military contracts bid on by Boeing, such as for air refueling tankers.
He’s the senior member on the defense appropriations subcommittee and would be the most likely successor.
Dicks and Murtha had their disagreements in Washington, most notably on how the contract to build the nation’s next generation of air tankers should be handled. Murtha wanted the massive contract split between the two competitors, the Boeing Co. and the consortium of Northrop Grumman Corp. and the parent company of Airbus.
Dicks fought that idea, and it was later rejected by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Last year, Dicks and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., hosted Murtha on a tour of the Boeing plant in Everett where he viewed the aircraft Boeing wants to develop as an air tanker.
Although Murtha’s turn against the war in 2005 made him a national figure, he was known inside Washington for decades as the consummate behind-the-scenes deal maker, an old-line power broker and physically imposing figure who unrepentantly delivered billions of federal dollars to his home state.
In his later years, Murtha became a favorite target of critics demanding an end to Congress’ earmarking largesse, a personification of the power of pork. Contractors and lobbyists close to him were the target of federal corruption investigations.
However, he was never charged with a crime, nor found to have committed an ethical breach.
As a result, Pennsylvania’s longest-serving member of Congress leaves a complicated legacy — praised by antiwar liberals for his courage while pilloried by government reformers.
Still, it was no small thing for the then 73-year-old Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime champion of the armed forces, to stand before television cameras in 2005 and call for an immediate pullout of American forces from Iraq. In doing so, he became the unlikely face of congressional opposition to the war.
“Our military’s done everything that has been asked of them,” Murtha said then. “The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily,” he said. “It’s time to bring the troops home.”
His view was savaged by President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans and supported, but not embraced, by nervous Democrats.
Murtha entered politics upon his return to the U.S. after his service in the Vietnam War, first securing a seat in the state Legislature and then winning a special House election in 1974, becoming the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress.
During his fourth term in the House, Murtha faced a political test, becoming ensnared in the FBI’s Abscam bribery investigation. He was videotaped speaking to an FBI agent posing as a lawyer for a rich Arab sheik, refusing to take $50,000 in cash — supposedly in exchange for help obtaining a visa for the sheik.
The Justice Department cleared him, and he testified against two other congressmen, John Murphy and Frank Thompson, who later were convicted. Murtha was re-elected.