November 27, 2006

Who will get bruised in Pelosi-Harman feud?
Stakes are high in House Intelligence leadership decision. Nancy Pelosi is backing a controversial Florida representative for Harman's old job.

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Among the many post-election minidramas being played out on Capitol Hill is a saga ripe with implications for the war on terror.

The plot features House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bouncing a respected national security expert in favor of an impeached federal judge as the public face for House Democrats on the most sensitive and explosive intelligence issues confronting the nation.


By all accounts, Pelosi appears determined to make Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a move driven, at least in part, by fealty to the demands of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The post is now held by South Bay Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo.

Given that he was bounced from the bench by his congressional colleagues 18 years ago on bribery-related charges, Pelosi's apparent embrace of the 70-year-old Hastings has unsettled many analysts.

At the same time, they don't rule out the possibility that Hastings could dispel their misgivings by turning in a solid performance at a time of deep concern over the competence of the nation's intelligence agencies, reflected by the current crisis in Iraq and looming confrontations with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

"The stakes couldn't be higher," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert with the Center for American Progress, a think tank with ties to the Democratic Party. "If Hastings is the choice, he is going to have to correct the public impression of him as a deeply compromised politician and quickly establish a reputation as a tough, but fair, investigator."

Harman has wide respect

Left at the altar, notwithstanding promises by previous Democratic leaders, would be Harman, whose eight years on the committee have won her wide bipartisan respect on intelligence matters. About a year after Sept. 11, 2001, Harman became the top-ranked Democrat on the panel, launching her as one of the party's most knowledgeable public voices on a gamut of terrorism issues.

By most measures, Harman, 61, would seem a lock for the committee chairmanship now that the Democrats have seized control of Congress.

She interrupted her congressional career in 1998 for an unsuccessful campaign for governor of California. After ardent wooing by then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic floor leader at the time, Harman agreed to reclaim her old House seat, but only after a written pledge from Gephardt and other top Democrats that she would be restored to her Intelligence Committee post, seniority intact.

Her claim on the chairmanship was strengthened when she was vaulted over a black lawmaker, Sanford Bishop, to replace Pelosi as the ranking Democrat on the committee. Bishop was given a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. About the same time, the House amended its internal rules to exempt the committee's chairman and ranking minority party member from term limits.

Pressure in bribery probe

Pelosi's treatment of Bishop did not sit well with the Black Caucus, which was further angered last spring when she pressured Rep. William Jefferson to step down from the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee after an FBI raid uncovered about $90,000 in his home freezer as part of an ongoing bribery investigation.

Against that backdrop, the caucus rallied around Hastings, second in seniority among committee Democrats to Harman, as payback for the way Bishop had been shoved aside.

Meanwhile, Harman is said to have angered Pelosi by mounting a lobbying campaign for the chairmanship -- an effort that triggered a Justice Department investigation to determine whether she bent the law in marshaling support from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. Harman has denied wrongdoing.

Harman also angered many Democrats with her early backing of the Iraq war. Even when she turned into a war critic, some in the party felt she missed an opportunity to score partisan points against the administration during her frequent appearances on high-profile TV talk shows.

While Harman also has a reputation for being occasionally abrasive and hard on her staff, the real reason for her rift with Pelosi may be rooted in strains in their own relationship. If so, neither one is discussing it publicly.

Pelosi's appointment of Hastings to the chairmanship could trigger another fracas within her own caucus, which could move to reverse her decision. Pelosi was bruised last week when House Democrats rejected her choice for majority leader.

It would also hand Republicans a way to dramatize a claim that Democrats are not serious about national security -- as foreshadowed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

"I think if (Pelosi) appoints Alcee Hastings to be head of intelligence, that will be a further mistake in the direction of making her far too left wing and far too insensitive," Gingrich said.

The House, with Pelosi's support, voted to impeach Hastings in 1988, although he was acquitted of the federal bribery charges brought seven years earlier. The criminal case arose from an indictment alleging that Hastings and an attorney plotted to extract bribes in return for sparing two convicted racketeers from going to prison. The attorney was convicted.

Removed from office

With Rep. John Conyers, a prominent black caucus member, presenting the House case, the Senate subsequently voted to remove him from office. But that did not bar him from running for public office, which he did in 1992 when he won election to his current seat in the U.S. House.

The passage of time and a controversy about key pieces of bribe evidence have softened attitudes of many toward Hastings.

Even so, many experts remain uneasy about his possible elevation.

"The Democrats need to demonstrate that they are capable handlers of the national security agenda. And Harman is widely seen as an experienced hand at intelligence matters and the Iraq war," said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Pelosi is said to be weighing the possibility of finessing the controversy by appointing a Latino lawmaker, Silvestre Reyes, 61, of Texas, to the chairmanship.