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Democrats Call Goss Nomination a ‘Mistake’

President Bush nominated House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.) today to head the CIA, setting up what is likely to be a contentious confirmation hearing when the Senate returns from its summer recess next month.

So far, no Democrat has publicly declared any intention to filibuster the nomination, but within hours of the announcement, several Democrats — both publicly and privately — vowed to vigorously question the eight-term Congressman about how he would reform the nation’s intelligence community.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Bush made a “mistake” by nominating a politician to the post at a time when the intelligence community needs a major overhaul.

“I am concerned with the president’s choice, but will work with Chairman Roberts to move the process forward,” said Rockefeller, who serves as the vice chairman on his chamber’s Intelligence panel alongside Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). “Porter Goss will need to answer tough questions about his record and his position on reform, including questions on the independence of the leader of the intelligence community.”

Sen. Carl Levin said it is imperative for the next CIA director to perform his job independently of the administration’s influence, which the Michigan Democrat charged has resulted in “some of our greatest failures in the intelligence area over the last several years.”

“I believe that objective, independently arrived at intelligence assessments are a matter of vital national importance,” Levin said. “That will be a major focus for me both in the consideration of proposed reforms of the intelligence community and in my assessment of the Goss nomination.”

Goss, a former CIA operative, is considered to be a close Bush ally as well as an expert on intelligence matters.

Across the aisle, Republicans applauded Bush’s decision to choose Goss, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) described the House Intelligence chairman as “an outstanding selection and … highly qualified.”

Frist said he hopes to move Goss’ nomination “as expeditiously as possible,” but noted he still needs to consult Roberts about a hearing schedule.

A senior Democratic source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Democrats are unlikely to filibuster Goss’ nomination, mindful that Republicans are eager to tag them as obstructionists — especially on intelligence issues — less than three months before the elections.

But Democrats have become increasingly disenchanted with the Florida Republican.

Goss, who is scheduled to retire at the conclusion of the 108th Congress, has been critical of Sen. John Kerry’s intelligence record ever since the Massachusetts Senator locked up the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year. In June, Goss appeared on the House floor with a sign quoting Kerry asking in 1997 why the nation’s “intelligence apparatus continues to grow” even though the Cold War had ended.

“I got books full of that stuff,” Goss said. “There is no doubt where the record is. The Democratic Party did not support the intelligence community.”

Goss had been long rumored to be in line to lead the nation’s spy agency and the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet last month paved the way for Bush to nominate the 16-year Congressional veteran to the post. In addition to questioning Goss about his ability to shelve his partisan leanings, Democrats are also expected to examine his close ties to the CIA as well his record as chairman of the Intelligence panel.

In the House, Goss has long been a favorite of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who waived Conference term limits in order to allow the Floridian to chair the committee for a fourth term this Congress.

Hastert has had several conversations in the past few months with the White House about the possibility of Goss’ nomination for the CIA post, and the Speaker recently sent Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) as an emissary to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to gauge House Democrats’ attitudes toward Goss.

For the first part of their term working together, Goss and Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman (D-Calif.) enjoyed a productive, collegial relationship. But that comity has disintegrated in recent months, as the two lawmakers have traded accusations of partisanship in dealing with the issues of pre-war Iraq intelligence and the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.

Goss launched his government career in 1960 immediately after graduating from Yale University, working as an Army intelligence officer and then serving as a clandestine services operative in the CIA. He retired from the agency in 1971 after suffering from blood poisoning and a heart infection.

Goss was elected to the House from Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1988 after having spent close to two decades as a newspaper publisher and local government official. He became chairman of the Intelligence Committee in 1997 and has since consistently pushed to increase funding for agencies under his jurisdiction. He initially planned to retire from the chamber in 2002 but was persuaded to stay by Hastert and Bush.

As of Tuesday morning, it was not clear if Goss would resign his seat in light of his nomination. He is scheduled to chair a hearing Wednesday investigating some of the 9/11 commission’s conclusions.

Although considered unlikely, it would be up to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to decide to call for a special election or leave the seat vacant when Goss resigns. Under Florida election law a special election is held whenever a vacancy occurs in the state’s Congressional delegation, although the law allows for exceptions if the vacancy occurs when no session of Congress is scheduled during the unexpired portion of the term.

But logistically it would be very difficult to hold a special election to fill the seat before the Nov. 2 general election. State law calls for a 14-day qualifying period and two weeks between the special primary and special general elections. If Bush sets the special election to coincide with the November general, it could create a confusing situation for voters, who could be faced with voting for the same or different candidates on two separate ballots.

Four Republicans are squaring off in the Aug. 31 primary to succeed Goss in the Cape Coral-based 14th district. The leading candidate in the race is former state Rep. Connie Mack IV (R), the son of former Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R). The district heavily favors Republicans and whoever wins the primary is expected to coast to victory in November.

With Goss already planning to retire at the end of this year, Reps. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) have both expressed strong interest in succeeding him as Intelligence chairman. Both currently serve on the committee.

LaHood has in his favor his reputation as a hard worker and the fact that he hails from the same state as Hastert, the man who will make the final decision. But LaHood is also known for being independent-minded and outspoken, traits that may not help him in his gavel quest.

Gibbons brings to the table his experience as an Air Force pilot who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Nevada lawmaker is said to be eyeing a gubernatorial run in 2006, and he would likely have to promise not to make such a bid if he is given the chair manship.

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.