Democratic Fight Looms Over House Intel Post
A potentially volatile cocktail of personality clashes, power plays and mounting outrage at the White House could upend any campaign by the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — one of the most influential Jewish members of Congress — to keep her post.
Rep. Jane Harman, a Southern California Democrat known for her centrist politics and for her expertise on foreign policy, recently has generated a flurry of support for her bid to stay on as the top Democrat on the intelligence committee in the face of indications that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi plans to rotate her off the panel.
“She’s trying to stay on, and I know she’s called a lot of people to generate news articles and a lot of pressure on Ms. Pelosi,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, who represents a district adjacent to Harman’s on the heavily Jewish west side of Los Angeles. “But that’s not a decision that’s going to be made until next December and January.”
If the Democrats take back the House and Harman prevails, she would take over the chair of what has become one of the most high-profile committees in Congress following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This almost surely would rile some of the party’s more liberal members, who say that Harman has not been vocal enough in challenging the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program.
Any move to keep Harman on could also upset the Congressional Black Caucus, which is reportedly already upset with Pelosi — who has the power to appoint Democratic members of the intelligence committee. Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, the second most senior Democrat on the committee, reportedly has the backing of the powerful caucus.
House rules have long stipulated that members may serve on the intelligence committee only eight years. As a result of a recent change pushed through by the GOP, however, the term limits no longer apply to the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee. That could open the door for Pelosi to reappoint Harman, if she chooses.
According to media reports, the black caucus is upset with Pelosi over her decision to ask one of its members, Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, to resign from the Ways and Means Committee in the midst of a bribery investigation. Passing over Hastings could compound the tension.
Jefferson allegedly accepted $100,000 during a sting operation conducted last August by the FBI, which then found $90,000 in Jefferson’s freezer days later.
Hastings has ethical baggage of his own. A former federal judge, he was indicted in 1981 for influence peddling. He was acquitted on all counts, but was later removed from his judgeship by Congress.
He was elected to the House in 1992, the same year as Harman.
While the Black Caucus is said to be pressing Hastings’s cause, no similar campaign is expected on Harman’s behalf by her Jewish colleagues. Jewish members, unlike blacks, Latinos and other minorities, have never formed a formal caucus, preferring historically not to be seen as an organized legislative bloc. They gather only occasionally, generally to meet with foreign dignitaries and usually at the initiative of the senior Jewish member, currently Waxman. Several insiders said the Jewish members have not met regularly since at least the early 1990s.
Moreover, several veteran lawmakers and aides said, Jewish members, though mostly Democrats, are divided ideologically and do not support one another for merely ethnic reasons.
A Jewish “representative from Michigan and a Jewish representative from California don’t necessarily have that much in common. Their constituents don’t have that much in common,” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum and a former congressional staffer. But for the black representatives, “there are continually problems that affect them as African Americans.”
Further scrambling allegiances, Hastings maintains unusually close ties with the Jewish community on and off Capitol Hill. His district, which straddles Palm Beach and Broward counties in South Florida, is one of the most heavily Jewish in the nation, and he has become known as one of Israel’s strongest advocates in Congress.
Harman, for her part, has steadily built a reputation as one of the most hawkish members of the Democratic Party and, according to several Washington insiders, one of its most difficult personalities. She is said to have found herself repeatedly at odds with colleagues — including Pelosi.
A Harvard Law School graduate who served as deputy secretary to the Cabinet during the Carter administration, Harman gave up her congressional seat in 1998 to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. After losing the primary battle to Gray Davis, Harman regained her House seat in 2000. In 2003, she was named ranking member of the intelligence committee by Pelosi, who passed over Georgia’s Sanford Bishop Jr., another member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Now, several Washington insiders told the Forward, Pelosi would like to rotate Harman off the committee after the November elections, even though as the ranking Democrat Harman is exempt from the committee’s unique term limits.
The term-limit waiver for the committee’s chairman and ranking minority member was created by the Republicans in 2003 in order to allow then-chairman Porter Goss of Florida to retain the post. Goss subsequently became the director of the CIA, a position from which he resigned last month.
Harman’s future recently has become an object of press speculation. In a May 22 essay titled “Easy Targets for Karl Rove,” Time magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote that “it is an open secret that Pelosi has chosen Hastings to replace the respected and experienced Jane Harman as the ranking Democrat on the committee.”
“It’s not too late,” Klein added, “for Hastings to remove himself from the line of fire and make clear his support for Harman as ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee.”
Harman is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a bloc of moderate and conservative Democrats that was formed in 1994 as a way to amplify the voice of the party’s more centrist wing. She voted to authorize the president to use force in Iraq, but in the wake of the invasion she has used her perch on the intelligence committee to criticize the administration for overstating the case for weapons of mass destruction and for creating a false sense of certainty about the intelligence. In recent weeks, Harman has spoken out against taking military action against Iran at this time because, she has said, the intelligence is inadequate and may contain misinformation. Still, she has been criticized by liberals who have complained that as a ranking member of the intelligence committee, she was one of the few members of Congress who knew about the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic wiretapping program before The New York Times revealed it.
Harman’s office did not respond for comment. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month, Harman said that “while there are no limits on the chair and ranking member” of the intelligence panel, “the decision is Leader Pelosi’s.”
Hastings’s chief of staff, Fred Turner, said the intelligence position is “not something that [the congressman] is campaigning for.” Turner added that Hastings wants what is “in the best interest of the country and the House of Representatives, and if that means, you know, keep Jane Harman, terrific, and if that means switch to Alcee Hastings, you know, terrific.”
An aide to the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, said the group had no official position on whether Harman or Hastings should serve as the next ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee. However, the L.A. Times reported last month that the Caucus was supporting Hastings.
According to a Democratic congressional staffer who did not want to be identified by name, the preferences of the 43-member Black Caucus are an important factor that will play into Pelosi’s eventual decision.
“If the Congressional Black Caucus came to Leader Pelosi and made the ascension of Alcee Hastings a line-in-the-sand issue for them, I could see where Pelosi would be more inclined to encourage Harman’s departure,” the staff member said.
When contacted by the Forward, several Jewish members of Congress declined to offer public support for Harman’s retaining the intelligence slot.
Waxman — a Southern California kingmaker who has served in the House since 1974 and is one of its most liberal members — called Representative Hastings “a fine man” who “would do an excellent job” as the committee’s ranking Democrat. He suggested that it is Harman’s time to step down.
“The Democratic rules have been that the head of that panel is rotated off after a certain period of time,” Waxman said. “The idea behind it was that we didn’t want members serving on the intelligence committee permanently, we wanted to give other members a chance to serve on it.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat representing sections of Long Island, said he supports both Harman and Hastings, whom he praised as a “bridge” between the Jewish and African American communities.
“I would look forward to the Democrats becoming the majority and [Hastings] becoming chairman,” Ackerman said. “I think it would bode well for him to be in that position, from the standpoint of our relationship with Israel. He gets it.”
Jewish organizations declined to weigh in on the question of whether Harman should keep her top spot on the intelligence committee.
“I don’t want to engage in supporting one or the other,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Hastings has been an important voice on a variety of issues of concern and interest to the Jewish community. He’s been a champion on the issue of combating antisemitism, both domestically and internationally.” At the same time, Hordes said, Harman has been “a major credit to the Democratic party as a voice for the party on intelligence issues.”