Congressman John Murtha dead at 77; competitive special election likely in Pennsylvania

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Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha, who just Saturday became Pennsylvania’s longest serving member of Congress, died Monday at a Virginia hospital from an infection relating to a recent surgery.

Murtha, 77, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, “passed away peacefully” at 1:18 p.m. Monday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, according to spokesman Matthew Mazonkey.

Murtha had recently undergone gallbladder surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital and had developed an infection.

Mazonkey said Murtha, who in 1974 became the first Vietnam War veteran elected to Congress, “dedicated his life to serving his country both in the military and in the halls of Congress.” In recent years, he was known for his ardent opposition to the Iraq War and his call for an immediate pullout of U.S. troops there.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, also a Democrat, called Murtha an “uber-congressman” and ordered all Pennsylvania and U.S. flags across the commonwealth to be flown at half-staff.

“This is fitting because Jack Murtha was not just a wonderful congressman for his district, but for all of Pennsylvania,” Rendell said. “No matter what the issue was, Jack and Jack’s office was the first call we would make. No matter where you were in Pennsylvania, and certainly for anyone sitting in this chair, he was the go-to guy. He will be missed in countless ways.”

House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a statement that “our nation has lost a decorated veteran and the House of Representatives has lost one of its own.”

“I also want to express my condolences to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who valued Congressman Murtha’s advice and friendship. He will be missed,” Boehner said.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza noted that Murtha’s death will set off a competitive special election, likely to be held on May 18, the date already set for federal primaries around the state. Cillizza writes that “Murtha’s district is the only one in the country won by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, according to Republican sources, and that trend line coupled with the volatile national environment for Democrats ensures Republicans will heavily target the contest.”

And the Wall Street Journal noted Monday that Murtha’s death “marks the end of one of the U.S. House’s most enduring modern traditions.” That tradition is the Pennsylvania Corner, the area in the House chamber where Murtha would hold court with “lawmakers of both parties who regularly huddled around the powerful chairman and appropriator.”

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