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Battle of Hastings adds to Pelosi drama

Democrats are split on who should head the House Select Committee on Intelligence. The centrist Blue Dog Democrats are backing Rep. Jane Harman, but speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi prefers Rep. Alcee Hastings.
President of the OSCE PA, Alcee Hastings
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D- Fla., faces a challenge from Rep. Jane Harman, D- Calif., for the post of House Intelligence Committee chairman.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
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The House Democrats’ rejection Thursday of Rep. John Murtha as majority leader, opting for Rep. Steny Hoyer – a rebuff to speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi – isn’t the only headache for the woman who’ll lead the House in the new Congress.

Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, but no particular ally of her fellow Californian Pelosi, is seeking to head the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Harman is the senior Democrat on that panel and has served on it for eight years. Washington insiders see Harman as the natural choice for head of the Intelligence panel due to her high profile in the national media and her articulate discussions of intelligence policy.

“She's our new alpha dog,” Harman said in 2002 when the House Democrats chose Pelosi to be their leader. Now Harman is challenging the alpha dog and risking a nasty bite.

For Intelligence Committee chairman, Pelosi prefers Rep. Alcee Hastings, D- Fla. who has served  on the panel for seven years and has support from the Congressional Black Caucus and from a large number of the left-leaning House Progressive Caucus.

Entirely Pelosi's choice
Under the rules of the House, the choice of Intelligence chairman is entirely Pelosi’s to make. She need not get her pick ratified by the Democratic Steering Committee or by the full Democratic membership.

In a move that would likely incur Pelosi’s displeasure, the Blue Dog Coalition — a phalanx of 44 centrist House Democrats — is drafting a letter endorsing Harman, a Blue Dog member, for Intelligence Committee chair.

That letter is likely to be released Thursday.

At a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday, Blue Dog communications spokesman Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas said “Jane Harman may very well be chair of the intelligence committee,” a prediction that drew only a cryptic smile from Harman who was standing near Ross. 

Explaining why the Blue Dog Democrats are issuing a letter of support for Harman, a Democratic House source who is familiar with their thinking, said, “Blue Dog members are fired up; they want to flex their muscles.”

The source agreed that the Blue Dog challenge to Pelosi, a very public gesture, unlike the secret-ballot vote on majority leader, is a risky move for the group.

The Blue Dog members come mostly from rural and Southern districts where Democrats have been especially weak in the past 25 years and where San Francisco liberal Pelosi would have little appeal.

Two examples: Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and newly elected Rep.-elect Michael Arcuri from upstate New York, who’ll hold a district now represented by Republican Sherwood Boehlert.

Motives of the Blue Dogs
“Many of the Blue Dogs represent districts that could go Republican,” noted John Pitney, politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. In the early 1990s Pitney served as a House GOP congressional aide.

The Blue Dog Democrats, Pitney said, “want to be on the right side of the national security issue, which has been a liability for the Democrats in the past and could again hurt them in 2008. Some of the Blue Dogs may worry that Pelosi’s endorsement of Murtha could be a sign that she wants to impose her will on the caucus. This letter could be a counter-signal that they want to curb her power.”

Pelosi may need the Blue Dog Coalition as much as they need her, or perhaps more.

It is a make-or-break group for Pelosi’s ability to get legislation enacted in the House. Their 44 votes account for about 20 percent of Democratic membership in the new House.

Blue Dog leaders made a point of stressing their independence from party leaders in their debut event Wednesday. “We’re not going to be a rubber stamp for anyone,” said Rep. Mike Ross , D- Ark, the Blue Dogs spokesman.

Clash over Iraq war
Pelosi and Harman disagreed on the invasion of Iraq in 2003: Harman was one of 81 House Democrats supporting it, while Pelosi opposed it.

“Do I think what we're doing today means we're going to war? No. I think we're standing up to evil,” Harman said when the House voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq in 2002.

Hastings, like Pelosi and most House Democrats, voted against the 2002 war resolution.

Hastings is also one of fewer than a dozen federal judges in U.S. history to be removed from office by the Senate in an impeachment trial. He was a federal judge appointed in 1979 by President Carter.

In 1989 the Democratic-majority House impeached him and the Democratic-majority Senate tried him on charges of conspiring to extract a bribe from two drug dealers in exchange for reducing their sentences. The Senate voted to remove him from the bench.

Pelosi’s support for Hastings has drawn fire from the New Republic, a Washington magazine which speaks for centrist and liberal Democrats. The magazine said in an editorial that Pelosi’s choice of Hastings was “both substantively foolish and politically tone-deaf.”

“Pelosi doesn't want to skip over a black member like Hastings for fear of angering the Congressional Black Caucus,” said the New Republic editors.

Pelosi could opt for a Democrat other than Hastings or Harman. One possibility: former Intelligence Committee member Rep. Sanford Bishop, a centrist African-American member from Georgia.