Murtha Likely Sidelined Until Later in February

Posted February 3, 2010 at 6:20pm

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was in stable condition but still in intensive care Wednesday following complications from gall bladder surgery, his office said.

He is not expected to return to work in the House until after lawmakers get back from their Presidents Day recess in three weeks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. “He needs to take time to recover,” she said.

Murtha, 77, underwent scheduled surgery to remove his gall bladder at the Bethesda Naval Hospital last week, but the procedure spawned complications, and he has since checked into the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

His confidants in the House Democratic Caucus nervously exchanged updates on his condition throughout the day on Wednesday — and expressed guarded optimism that he is on the mend after an unsteady period earlier in the week.

“We’re pleased to hear that while in serious condition and in intensive care that Mr. Murtha seems to be improving,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), an ally. “He’s one strong, tough individual, so I have no doubt that he’s going to persevere and be back on his feet.”

The Pennsylvania Democrat’s health scare started in December when he was hospitalized with abdominal pain. That illness was initially misdiagnosed as swine flu but turned out to be related to his gall bladder, and he went in for scheduled laparoscopic surgery to have it removed last week.

A former Marine and a power broker as the Appropriations cardinal who controls the Pentagon’s purse strings, Murtha commands fierce loyalty among a segment of the Democratic Caucus. He regularly holds forth from his unofficial perch in the southeast corner of the House chamber — commonly known as “Murtha’s Corner.” That seat remained empty on Wednesday, even as the Rust Belt Democrats who regularly huddle around him gathered there during midday votes to discuss his condition.

Murtha’s long road to recovery will sideline him as he passes a milestone in his 36-year House career. He is set on Friday to become the Keystone State’s longest-serving Representative in the chamber. It remains unclear whether he will be well enough to attend a reception marking the achievement, set for Feb. 24 at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Va.

Murtha’s health problems come after a difficult year in which he became the focus of an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation into earmarks and the now-defunct PMA Group, a lobbying firm that had been a major source of his campaign cash. In December, the OCE recommended the House ethics committee drop the case against Murtha.

But amid the scrutiny, his fundraising prowess has diminished. At around this time in the last election cycle, Murtha had helped raise more than $860,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its highlighted candidates. As of Jan. 21 this year, he had helped gather $160,000, according to party fundraising tallies.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.