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Pelosi’s Panel Boycott Irks Some in Caucus

While the interparty battle over the makeup of the committee investigating Hurricane Katrina captures the public’s attention, an internal fight has been brewing quietly among House Democrats over Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to block her party from participating in the probe.

Sources say that some in the Democratic Caucus, including both rank-and-file and senior Members, have been privately questioning whether Pelosi has misplayed her political hand by refusing to impanel her Members to the select oversight committee.

Those sources indicated that several Democratic Members made their concerns clear to the Minority Leader last week, both directly and indirectly, arguing that the party was better off taking part — if only to get media focus on their concerns and criticism.

Despite the dissenters, Pelosi has stood her ground, hoping that her refusal to participate in the committee will help build leverage for her call for the creation of an independent 9/11-style commission to lead the oversight. So far, the Republicans have not embraced the idea.

“She understands what they are saying, but in the end it’s the right thing to do,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “We need to keep the pressure on. She has made her position clear, and she’s not going to change it.”

Added Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.): “I think it’s the right thing to do, and I encouraged her to do it. It’s the right position.”

The Democratic divisions came to a head last week at a closed-door leadership meeting in which several high-ranking Members raised questions about Pelosi’s stance. Sources said that Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) in particular expressed concern to Pelosi that not participating could prove dangerous for Democrats seeking answers about what went wrong.

Those veteran Members suggested that the party would be better served if Democrats showed up and demanded answers and accountability in public, rather than boycotting it altogether, sources familiar with the meeting said. They also said Democrats can continue to push for an independent commission from the pulpit of the joint committee.

Pelosi, however, was quick to defend her strategy and, according to sources in the room, asserted that “I am the leader” and her plan is the one the Caucus would follow.

The leadership aide said Pelosi “understands that, as the leader, this is her responsibility” to take positions that may carry risk and trigger internal opposition. The ranking members, according to Democratic sources, agreed at the end of last week’s meeting that they would publicly support Pelosi even if they privately disagreed.

Waxman, who is the ranking member on the Government Reform Committee, would not discuss whether he supports the decision not to participate in the hearings, nor did he want to address whether he felt it was the politically appropriate move. Waxman explained that Democrats are trying to “dramatize the demand for the independent commission.”

“I don’t want to speculate about the risk, but that’s the strategy,” Waxman said. “Democrats need to be united.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) did not question Pelosi’s position directly, but said Democrats must do everything possible to break the political bickering with Republicans over the committee. Cummings said that despite the Democrats’ stance heretofore, he doesn’t “think it’s ever too late to compromise.”

“In some kind of way, we have got to get past this impasse,” said Cummings, who has led the criticism of the federal Katrina response. “We have a limited time to act. I don’t want interest in this issue to wane and the voices of those innocent Americans who are crying out for help.”

One senior Democratic aide said many in the Caucus want to have their voices heard — no matter what the forum — and believe it isn’t too late for Pelosi to change course, saying: “We still have time, we aren’t out there too far that we can’t go back. The important thing is that Democrats are part of the process.”

Pelosi has argued that the select panel is too partisan to ensure proper oversight of the Gulf Coast disaster. She has said that unless Democrats are given equal representation and full subpoena power to call witnesses, the party will refrain from participating in what she calls a “sham” of a panel.

The Minority Leader also has said the committee was flawed from the outset because Republicans did not consult with Democrats when they put it together, yet went on to characterize it as bipartisan.

Despite her official stance, Pelosi has given her blessing to three of her Gulf Coast-area Members to take part. Two of them, Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Charlie Melancon (La.), have decided to participate in the committee hearings that began Thursday.

Taylor, for his part, declined to answer questions about whether not appointing Democrats to the select committee could be damaging to the party, instead noting it was important that he and Melancon had shown up since they both understand the areas being discussed.

“I think it’s important I say what I can say,” Taylor said.

But one Democratic staffer familiar with the select committee said the decision to allow Taylor and Melancon to participate makes Pelosi’s position even trickier to navigate.

“Now we have to explain that yeah, the Democrats are seating some Members,” this aide said. “That’s even more gray for the public.”

With that in mind, another well-placed Democratic source said some Members feel that boycotting the committee may be pointless, and wonder whether “we are investing energy and political capital” on a battle with no ultimate advantage. These Members believe the party would be better served by showing up and focusing 100 percent of their energy on the call for an independent commission, the source said.

“We could do more for the people if we were on the committee raising hell than we can do when we are not on the committee,” the Democratic staffer said. “We’re in pretty deep and it’s not clear where we go next.”

While Pelosi has stuck to her boycott, it remains unclear whether other House Democratic leaders would be willing to shift gears at this point. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), for instance, has continued to defer to the Minority Leader when asked about whether Democrats would still protest the Congressional committee if an independent commission isn’t authorized.

“I will want to talk to the leader further about that,” Hoyer said last week.

The select committee meets again this week and Tuesday will question former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who resigned after widespread criticism of his handling of Katrina.

When asked last week what she is telling Members who may want to participate in the hearings and question Brown, Pelosi held firm. She acknowledged that all of her Members would like to question Brown, but she “will not validate a sham commission” by participating in that particular forum.

“I don’t know who you are making reference to, but my Caucus is fully in support of an independent commission,” she said. “They know a sham when they see one.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said if all “we were doing was saying no” to the committee and not offering alternatives, then it would be hard to make a strong political argument in Democrats’ favor. However, he said, the party is standing firm with a majority of Americans who want a 9/11-style commission.

House Democrats appear uniformly supportive of the creation of an independent commission. While there are detractors, others believe Pelosi is doing the right thing by sticking to her guns and not participating with the Republicans on a committee they say cannot produce objective results.

“I think this is legitimate,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). “This is an issue of national importance. It is important we hold our ground.”

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.