When the House of Representatives voted Thursday on the question of whether to allow old media companies to colonize and control the internet, the two men who would like to be majority leader in a Democrat-controlled Congress split their votes.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who has long been seen as the heir apparent for the majority leader post if Democrats regain power, stuck to his usual pattern: He did as the lobbyists for the largest corporations – and their allies in the Bush administration – asked.

Congressman John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has indicated that he will challenge Hoyer for the No. 2 position in the party caucus if Democrats retake the House in November, did the opposite.

Hoyer voted for the corrupt “Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, which the telephone and cable companies are using as a vehicle to create a two-tier internet in which the sites of corporations and candidates that pay high fees to broadband providers are easily accessed while the sites of small businesses, community groups and independent thinkers will be difficult – perhaps impossible – to reach. Murtha voted against it.

It wasn’t the first time that Hoyer and Murtha have split on fundamental questions.

While Murtha has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Hoyer has steered a cautious course far closer to that of the Bush administration.

Last December, Murtha voted against making the PATRIOT Act permanent. Hoyer voted in favor of the move, and in so doing gave the Bush administration everything it was asking for with regard to the controversial law.

The point here is not to suggest that Murtha’s a perfect progressive — in fact, he’s really an old-school New Dealer who breaks with liberals on some social issues — or that Hoyer is Tom DeLay in Democrat drag. For instance, while Murtha’s been a more consistent critic of corporate-sponsored free-trade pacts than Hoyer, both men have lifetime records of voting with the AFL-CIO around 90 percent of the time.

But when Hoyer ran against Nancy Pelosi for the position of House Whip back in 2001, there was no question that Pelosi was the progressive choice while Hoyer erred right. Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and a key player in Washington debates on trade policy, noted that, “Hoyer has repositioned himself–one can only assume for political purposes–as the DLC, business candidate in this race.”

No member of the House leadership has more consistently echoed the talking points of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council than Hoyer, who once told a DLC event that Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 because “too many Americans believed that our party had become weak on crime and national defense, incapable of making hard decisions on welfare reform and fiscal policy, and irrevocably wedded to the idea that all of our problems could be solved by government and more spending.”

Even now, while Hoyer is often praised by the Bush-friendly DLC, Murtha gets savaged. After Murtha called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq last year, the DLC accused the decorated Vietnam veteran of “offering surrender” — while Hoyer was quoted as saying Murtha’s approach “could lead to disaster.”

The DLC has good reason to favor Hoyer. The Democratic whip has worked with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, to thwart the candidacies of anti-war Democrats such as Illinosian Christine Cegelis in primaries this year — just as the two have worked over the years to help corporate-friendly Democrats beat those who challenge the K Street agenda.

The Hoyer-Murtha race is an abstraction at this point. Unless Democrats develop a coherent message soon, there is no guarantee that they will be a majority in search of a leader come November. But if they do become a majority, and if they want that majority to mean anything, Democrats would be wise to consider the opportunity that Murtha offers to distinguish their party on issues such as the war, the Patriot Act and media monopoly.