As triumphant Democrats begin a season of post-election jockeying, congressional insiders are speculating that Rep. Tom Lantos could face a challenge for the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee.
Lantos, a prominent foreign policy hawk and initially an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq, has long raised the ire of more liberal Democrats, especially during his stint as the ranking minority of the committee. His putative rival for the chairmanship is fellow California lawmaker Rep. Howard Berman, the committee’s second-ranking Democrat.
Berman recently declined to sign a letter backing Lantos for the chairmanship, congressional sources said. Ousting Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, could signal that Democrat leaders, including presumed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, intend to usher in an era of more overtly partisan confrontation, particularly on Iraq. In recent months it has become conventional wisdom in Washington that another Jewish Californian, Rep. Jane Harman, will be rotated out of her ranking position on the intelligence committee, in part because she is perceived as a foreign policy hawk who is too reluctant to criticize the GOP.
“Lantos has not done any mea culpas for this support of the Iraq War, he is not quick to criticize the president… [and] he is not quick to pick a fight with the top Republicans on the [international relations] committee,” commented one consultant with Republican ties. “Berman’s not some kooky left-winger, but on the other hand his differences with the administration are much more stark.”
A spokeswoman for Lantos, Lynne Weil, dismissed talk of a challenge as “rumors.” She said that Lantos expects to be chairman and has Pelosi’s “support and confidence.”
Both Lantos and Berman are longtime Jewish legislators with strong records on Israel. Lantos, a 78-year-old former economics professor, has publicly criticized the execution of the Iraq War and said that as chairman he would hold oversight hearings on Bush administration policy on Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran. Still, differences between the two men are apparent. Last August, when many congressional Democrats, including Berman, boycotted a speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because of his anti-Israel comments, Lantos co-sponsored a breakfast for the Iraqi leader and logged his concerns in person. Last summer, when Pelosi refused to co-sponsor a resolution in support of Israel because Republicans refused to include language urging both sides in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict to avoid killing civilians, it was Lantos, Pelosi’s fellow San Francisco lawmaker, who ended up co-sponsoring the measure.
Representing parts of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, Berman, 65, often has been less conciliatory to the GOP and is seen as an ally by groups that favor a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In December 2005, when many Jewish Democrats, including Lantos, signed a letter praising Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for brokering an Israel-Palestinian agreement on the Rafah border crossing, Berman refused to sign because he felt it gave her too much credit. Last spring, when the House drafted the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act in the wake of the election of Hamas, Berman successfully pressed for changes that would give the president more flexibility in doling out economic assistance to the Palestinians.
“Berman pushed for changes and got changes that made it much better,” M.J. Rosenberg said. Rosenberg is the director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum, an organization that advocates an active American role in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Berman “doesn’t do it out front, he doesn’t do intimidation… a lot of [his success] is about his style.” Rosenberg, a self-described fan of Berman, echoed the comments of several Washington insiders who said that among his colleagues Berman is better liked than Lantos, who is said to be viewed as prickly.
While Washington insiders are split on the likelihood of a Lantos ouster — in recent weeks Pelosi has said she intends to assign chairmanships strictly on the basis of seniority — Berman has left open the possibility of a challenge. He did not sign a recent letter to Pelosi, authored by New York Rep. Gary Ackerman, which backed Lantos for the chairmanship. Ackerman is the third-ranking Democrat on the international relations committee and is expected to chair its subcommittee on the Middle East.
According to one source, the only other Democratic member of the committee who did not sign the letter was nonvoting Rep. Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa, who was on a flight and could not be reached in time. But two committee insiders said that several committee members viewed the letter as “nonbinding” and signed it with the assumption that Berman was not a candidate. Over the course of several conversations with the Forward, Berman’s office declined to definitively state whether the congressman would or would not seek the chairmanship.
That is a question “about which he has said not a word to me or anyone else,” said Berman’s spokeswoman, Jean Smith. “There are a lot of rumors; they are just rumors.”
Still, some observers have suggested that, in the end, Pelosi will find herself occupied with more important fights than the chairmanship of the international relations committee, which often serves a predominantly advisory role. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, currently the House minority whip, is expeced to face a fight from Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania for the post of majority leader; Washington insiders are also buzzing over a possible showdown for the whip post between Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who is being credited for spearheading the Democratic takeover of the House, and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the choice of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“From Nancy Pelosi’s point of view, it seems to me, the last thing she wants is more of these kind of fights,” said Susan Rasky, a senior lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley School of Journalism who covered Congress for The New York Times in the 1980s. “Why would she make trouble for herself when she’s got bigger Democratic battles to worry about?”
With additional reporting by Nathan Guttman in Washington.