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John Murtha Has Died

MSNBC is reporting that 19-term Congressman John Murtha has passed away. He was 77.

His condition was thought to be grave after complications following gall bladder surgery. He was expected to be in the hospital for several months.

Murtha was a chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and ran for House Majority Leader in 2006. He was an early voice against the Iraq war in 2005, before many members of Congress were willing to do so.

A special election is expected in Murtha’s district, which includes Johnstown, within a few months. But for the time being, this reduces the Democratic majority in the House by 1, and further complicates efforts to find 218 votes for a health care bill. Murtha voted for the bill in November.

UPDATE: Just a note, I have roots in the district, on my mother’s side of the family. Most of my family members there either knew Jack Murtha well or worked for him or in a building named after him. He single-handedly kept these people alive, in many respects, after the area’s economy just went to pot like many Rust Belt regions. Murtha recently said, referring to several scandals about earmarks, “If I’m corrupt, it’s because I take care of my district.” And I’d agree on both counts.

There is a Democrat running who was going to primary Murtha, a former Navy guy named Ryan Bucchianeri, on a good-government platform. But he has not seemed to gain much traction. Bill Russell, the Republican who ran against Murtha in 2008, actually disappointed expectations and lost 58-42, after being touted as a sure winner by the right, but at this point, he certainly holds an advantage.

This is a very depressed, very ethnically homogenous, very culturally conservative district. It will be a tough race for Democrats to win, particularly in a low-turnout special election.

UPDATE II: A bio is here.

UPDATE III: Just to be clear here, this leaves the House with a current total of 433 members. That means that a majority is 217, not 218 as it is normally. Murtha was a likely yes vote on health care, but essentially not much has changed in terms of the raw vote count there.

My guess would be that they would schedule a special election, if at all possible, for Pennsylvania state primary day on May 18. I don’t know if that leaves enough time for the primary, so that may just be the primary election for PA-12, with a general election to follow. That would mean no filling the vacancy until either May 18 or late June.

Robert Wexler’s House seat, which he left vacant at the end of the year, will be filled by April, in a general election between Democrat Ted Deutch and Republican Edward Lynch. Deutch is expected to win, but now because of Murtha’s death, that will raise the threshold back to 218 votes. Another complication is the expected retirement of Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie, who is running for Governor, at the end of February. So there’s a lot that’s unclear here.

Abercrombie’s departure would have changed nothing before Murtha’s death, but now it does – it would bring the House down to 432, with 217 votes still needed for passage – and only 217 members who voted for the House health care bill still in the House. And with the HC summit scheduled for Feb. 25, I don’t see much room for a vote before Abercrombie leaves. I’m guessing he’ll be pressured to stay if his vote is needed.

UPDATE IV: Someone more familiar with Pennsylvania election law informs me that this election will actually be quicker than I thought. There is no primary election; the political parties nominate their own candidates for the special election and it’s held within 60 days actually at least 60 days out. So a replacement for Murtha will be in place by April 13 or April 20 in all likelihood, the primary day of May 18, since that would be cheaper for the state budget.

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David Dayen

David Dayen