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Storm Brewing Over Intel Slot

Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, could be at the end of her leadership tenure after this Congress, even though the current House rules allow her to hold her position indefinitely.

Sources throughout the Democratic Caucus say Harman would like to stay on as the leading Member of the influential Intelligence panel heading into the 110th Congress. But several key aides and lawmakers say that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is prepared to pass the ranking member gavel on to someone new.

Pelosi is the ultimate decision maker on Harman’s status, since leadership appoints the membership of the Intelligence panel. Sources said that even though Harman can technically keep her post, Pelosi is unhappy that her fellow Californian is pursuing the position this far from the start of the next Congress and is ready to give another Member a shot at the job.

“The ranking member job doesn’t automatically go to a particular Member from one Congress to the next,” said one Democratic source close to Pelosi. “There are many qualified members on the Intelligence Committee who would serve just as well. It’s up to Pelosi’s discretion who she will appoint.”

As questions mount over who will serve as the House Democrats’ leading voice on Intelligence issues, so do the internal tensions over Harman’s status between different factions of the Caucus. The next in line in seniority on the committee is Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.), a veteran of the Intelligence Committee and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Harman, whom Pelosi tapped as ranking member in 2003, declined in an interview to comment on her future on the committee, saying only, “National security is my passion. Democrats need a strong message. I am doing my best to project a strong message for Democrats.”

Pelosi had been Harman’s predecessor on Intelligence, serving two years as the ranking member and 10 years overall. Pelosi still serves as a nonvoting member of the committee and, according to sources, keeps a close eye on its affairs.

When asked about Harman’s status in the committee, Jennifer Crider, Pelosi’s spokeswoman, said the Minority Leader is not concentrating on committee assignments, calling it “a decision for the next Congress.”

“Congresswoman Harman has done an excellent job on the House Intelligence Committee,” Crider said. “Leader Pelosi is focused on the work at hand — holding the Republicans accountable for abuses of power and working to get out the Democratic message on the economy, national security and Social Security.”

But the debate rages on among Members, lobbyists and others who believe that Harman — a moderate who is often more hawkish than others in her Caucus — should remain the face of the Democrats on intelligence matters. Those sources have said that Harman is the Democrats’ most credible and strongest voice on national security, especially as it tries to battle the GOP for equivalency on defense issues.

“She really knows her stuff,” said one veteran Congressional observer. “She’s worked hard and built up a lot of ties within the intelligence community. Others can do it as well, but the Democrats have something that really works here in terms of building a greater Congressional presence on Intelligence.”

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Harman’s colleague on the Intelligence Committee, said it is critical for the committee to have consistency and strength in leadership, as well as a ranking member who can work with the majority in a bipartisan fashion. He said Harman has more than earned another term as top Democrat on the panel.

“It makes a lot of sense,” he said. “She has the expertise and the experience. It’s because of that experience that I think she should stay.”

And while no one appears to dispute Harman’s abilities, several Members and aides say she should step aside so that other members of the committee who are equally qualified can help lead the party’s charge.

Under the current House rules, enacted in the 108th Congress, Harman and the majority chairman can remain in their jobs for an indefinite period. Previous House rules set limits on the length of their service to no more than two terms.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), also an Intelligence Committee member, said Harman has done “a very fine job” as the head of the panel and “continues a very strong tradition” of solid Democratic leadership.

But Eshoo said that while she appreciates both sides of the issue, she leans toward holding to the idea of term limits to ensure “new people come in” and new energy and ideas are brought to the panel.

She said the issue at hand is not about Harman or her credentials, but whether the committee, and Pelosi, should follow the tradition of limits on service. Rank-and-file members of the committee are kept to eight years of membership.

“I don’t think term limits are set up to discriminate against anyone personally,” Eshoo said. “This is not about Jane.”

Another Intelligence Democrat, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas), said he supports keeping limits in place because it allows for a “fresh new perspective,” whether it’s the chairman or ranking member. In this case, he said, the Intelligence Committee serves at the pleasure of Pelosi.

“I respect Nancy Pelosi,” Reyes said. “I respect whatever decision she makes.”

That decision, according to one well-placed Democratic staffer, is going to be a tough call.

“It is a real political pickle for Pelosi,” said the aide. “Do you do waivers or do you not? Is it good to move Members up when they deserve it? On the other hand, Harman, by every account, is doing a phenomenal job.”

Even so, with an experienced, qualified black Member in the waiting, some Members and aides think the decision is quite simple.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said “it would be a bit hypocritical for us as a nation to continue to talk of diversity as a strength of the nation and not put that rhetoric into action.” Hastings, he added, has “impeccable credentials and has paid his dues” and is deserving of the chance to move up on the rung, he said.

Clyburn recently joined several other leading black and Hispanic Members in launching an offensive in Roll Call against columnist Norman Ornstein, who suggested in a column that Harman, as a centrist Democrat, must remain atop the Intelligence Committee for the sake of the Democratic Party.

Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that if Pelosi replaced Harman with a liberal, the new ranking member would have difficulty negotiating for the party and winning political points for Democrats on critical issues of defense. He noted that a possible elevation of Hastings would follow the ascension of Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), another CBC member and liberal Democrat, to the ranking member slot on the Homeland Security Committee.

Several Members and aides privately say they believe Harman is behind a coordinated campaign to get the job, but Harman allies and supporters called those suggestions off base and untrue. They added that while Harman would like to stay where she is, in no way is she employing friends to lobby on her behalf.

“She is not orchestrating this at all,” emphasized one Harman ally.

But the source close to Pelosi said many in the Caucus see it differently. “If Harman really wanted to keep this job, she went about it in the wrong way,” the source said.

Another wrinkle in the case is that Harman’s initial appointment as ranking member ruffled some feathers two years ago when she jumped over Rep. Sanford Bishop (Ga.) — then the most senior Democrat on Intelligence — to take the ranking position. Pelosi in turn gave Bishop, who is black, a coveted slot on the Appropriations Committee.

But the move nonetheless angered many CBC members, especially those who were already upset that Harman — in a rare move by then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) — was allowed to retake her seniority when she returned to the House in 2000. Harman left the House for two years to run for California governor, but returned with the promise of her former status.

One CBC source said the hard feelings run deep throughout both the CBC and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. This source said those minority Members believe Pelosi should advance Hastings and stick to her word that Harman has had her chance to serve.

“Pelosi has said to Members directly that she wants to see members of the CBC and CHC viewed and come to for their ideas and opinions on national security and foreign policy issues,” the source said. “She has made it a priority and will make it a priority.”

Another Washington insider, however, cautioned against benching Harman: “To push aside someone who has invested so much of their time, energy and commitment into it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

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