A California lawmaker’s campaign to become chair of a key congressional committee over the objections of House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi is dividing Jewish lawmakers and failing to attract public support from Jewish groups.
For months, speculation has bubbled in Washington over Pelosi’s alleged desire to keep the reins of the House Intelligence Committee out of the hands of fellow California Rep. Jane Harman and instead elevate Rep. Alcee Hastings, a South Florida lawmaker who was previously removed from his federal judgeship because of influence peddling. But the fight has taken center stage in recent days, since the Democratic congressional caucus rejected Pelosi’s candidate for majority leader, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, another lawmaker whose reputation has been tainted by ethics allegations.
Harman — a centrist panned by liberal critics as insufficiently tough on the Bush administration — appears to be winning the media battle. Several prominent pundits, including Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, have accused Pelosi of allowing a petty personal feud to cloud her political and policy judgment.
In the corridors of Congress, however, Hastings has attracted the public backing of the Congressional Black Caucus and Florida’s House delegation, including two Jewish members. Harman is Jewish, but that has no helped her with Jewish members.
“I’m just a Hastings person,” said Rep. Robert Wexler, who recently joined fellow Florida Democrats in signing a letter in support of Hastings. If the decision is “based on qualifications, Alcee wins, hands down… and with respect to impeachment and so forth, first of all, number one, Alcee was acquitted in a court of law, and we really should not be second-guessing an acquittal in a court of law.”
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, another Jewish legislator, also signed the letter. The South Florida districts of Wasserman Schultz and Hastings abut each other and are two of the most heavily Jewish in the nation. Hastings, first elected to the House in 1992, is known as one of Israel’s strongest advocates in Congress, as is Harman.
In contrast to Hastings, Harman has failed to secure the public support of many erstwhile allies. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who was backed by Harman and opposed by Pelosi in his successful bid to become majority leader, subsequently told ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” that he was deferring to the newly elected House speaker on the intelligence committee fight.
Both Harman and Hoyer belong to the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which gained at least nine members in the last election and was seen as successfully flexing its muscles during the majority leader tussle. But only 18 members, about half of the coalition’s current total, signed a November 15 letter to Pelosi urging her to make Harman the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Even Harman’s public supporters are loath to openly challenge Pelosi over the appointment.
“This is going to be the speaker’s decision,” said New York Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Blue Dog who signed the group’s letter of support. “She has the right to make selections for chair — that’s her prerogative, so I’m going to defer to her prerogative, but I also have the right to co-sign letters putting forth recommendations, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Two other Jewish lawmakers — Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Rep. Brad Sherman of California — praised Harman’s performance on the intelligence committee but also demurred to Pelosi over the leadership decision.
Rep. Sherman “abides by, and is in support of, House rules, which leave the decision of House Intel chair to the speaker. It’s Pelosi’s decision,” the lawmaker’s spokesman, Michael Briggs, told the Forward. “That being said, he has voiced to Speaker Pelosi his personal opinion, which is that ‘Harman has done a spectacular job.’”
Hastings’s backers — most notably his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus — have backed him unequivocally. Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, the CBC’s chairman, recently said that the 40 plus members of the coalition would not consider a “compromise” candidate, who is rumored to be Silvestre Reyes, a Hispanic lawmaker from Texas.
“There’s no reason for us to have that discussion or even consider that, when we are fully supportive of Alcee Hastings and believe that he should be appointed,” Watt told the Congressional Quarterly, a Washington newspaper, last week.
While Hastings enjoys the support of his fellow Florida Democratic lawmakers, several of Harman’s fellow Jewish lawmakers from California have failed to back her publicly or even hinted that they may support Hastings.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who like Harman hails from southern California and belongs to the Blue Dog Coalition, declined to sign the centrist group’s letter backing her. A representative for Schiff contacted by the Forward declined to comment.
In June, Rep. Henry Waxman — a Southern California kingmaker who has served in the House since 1974 and is one of its most liberal members — told the Forward that Hastings was “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.
“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 Waxman, who represents a district adjacent to Harman’s on the heavily Jewish west side of Los Angeles. He added, “The Democratic rules have been that the head of that panel is rotated off after a certain period of time… [and] 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.”
Allies of Pelosi have cited the unique term-limits governing the intelligence committee as a rationale for rotating Harman off the panel, even as the incoming House speaker and other Democratic leaders have pledged to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan 9-11 Commission. The commission called for the repeal of term limits, arguing that it would improve congressional oversight of intelligence agencies.
Pelosi’s office, however, said she would not be wedded to maintaining senior members on the committee.
“These recommendations were included by the commission, but left open to the Congress for consideration,” wrote Pelosi’s spokesperson Drew Hammill in an email to the Forward. He added, “Speaker-Designate Pelosi has extensive experience with the Intelligence Committee having served there for 14 years…. [and] experience will be just one of many qualifications” she “will take into account when making her decision.”
Outside the halls of Congress, African American organizations have openly backed Hastings, while Jewish groups have stayed predominantly neutral. The Black Leadership Forum, an umbrella group that includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and other organizations, supported Hastings in a November 9 letter to Pelosi.
In late October, Time magazine posted an article on its Web site alleging that the FBI was investigating allegations that Harman and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had entered into an illegal deal to promote her bid for the intelligence chairmanship. Under the alleged deal — which both sides vigorously deny was ever made — Aipac would urge its donors to lobby Pelosi on Harman’s behalf; in return, Harman would press the government to go easy on two former Aipac staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are being prosecuted under the Espionage Act for allegedly communicating classified information to Israeli diplomats and reporters.
Reportedly, Pelosi has been lobbied by some pro-Israel donors, but Aipac insists that it played no role and that it favors neither Harman nor Hastings. Meanwhile, other Jewish groups have said publicly that they have high opinions of both Harman and Hastings.
“Jane Harman has been a very strong and impressive voice on the intelligence committee,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We would certainly be pleased if Harman did get the position, but we probably would be pleased if others did, as well.”