Rep. Jane Harman, who has gained national prominence as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is fighting to hold on to the job amid indications she will be rotated off the panel next year.
The dispute pits the Venice lawmaker against House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Its outcome could determine what role Harman, who once ran for California governor and is one of the most quoted Democrats on intelligence matters, will play in the next Congress -- if she is reelected.
Pelosi has informed colleagues that she intends to force Harman to step down, replacing her with Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida, the second most senior Democrat on the intelligence panel.
If Democrats take control of the House in the November midterm elections, which some polls indicate is possible, they will name the next chairperson of the Intelligence Committee, which became one of the most important congressional panels after Sept. 11.
Democratic leadership aides described the move as a routine rotation. But other congressional officials attribute the anticipated assignment change to internal party politics, including concern among Democrats that Harman is too moderate and inclined to accommodate the Republican agenda.
House rules limit ordinary members to four successive two-year terms on the Intelligence Committee, and used to impose that restriction on the panel’s top Democrat and Republican. But a special provision dating to 2003 exempts those two members, saying their “tenure on the select committee shall not be limited.” Harman has been the ranking Democrat on the committee for three years.
In response to a question from the Los Angeles Times, Harman issued a statement on Monday making it clear that she would like to keep the intelligence panel job and disagreeing with suggestions that her term is set to expire.
“While there are no term limits on the chair and ranking member of [the intelligence panel], the decision is Leader Pelosi’s,” Harman said. “The committee’s work is difficult and fascinating, is of critical importance to California, and I’m working hard to make a difference for my party and country.”
Jennifer Crider, a Pelosi spokeswoman, declined to discuss the matter. “Leader Pelosi is focused on winning in November,” Crider said. “House Democrats will organize the 110th Congress next year.”
Harman’s effort to remain in the post would appear to be bolstered by the findings of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. That influential panel was harshly critical of congressional oversight of U.S. spy agencies, and faulted term limits in particular for forcing lawmakers to leave after they had developed expertise in the arcane world of espionage.
In 2003, House Republican leaders waived term-limit rules to allow then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) to remain as chairman of the panel, formally known as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. That decision prompted the change in the rules for the senior member of each party. Goss went on to become CIA director, a position he resigned this month.
Harman gained the position as the committee’s top Democrat in unusual fashion: After leaving the House to mount an unsuccessful run for governor in 1998 -- she lost in the primary -- Harman reclaimed her seat and was rewarded by party leaders by having her seniority on the committee restored.
That ranking position has given Harman a high-profile platform. Her appearance Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” was the seventh time this year that she has been on one of the networks’ weekend talk shows, far more than any other Democratic House member.
She also has ratcheted up her criticism of the White House. On Sunday, she called the Bush administration “lawless” and “out of control” for domestic spying operations in which the National Security Agency has reportedly assembled phone records and has eavesdropped on conversations of U.S. residents without warrants.
Some see such language as an attempt to shore up her standing among liberal Democrats. Harman faces a lively challenge at home in the June 6 primary from teacher and antiwar activist Marcy Winograd.
Virtually every member of California’s Democratic power structure is backing Harman, whereas Winograd’s support is coming from antiwar activists and notables such as Cindy Sheehan and Ed Asner. The challenger has accused Harman of, among other things, being slow to criticize President Bush on the war and on the NSA’s domestic spying.
Harman’s district is heavily Democratic, and the winner of the primary will be the presumptive favorite in November.
Despite Harman’s recent tough stance, some Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee indicate they favor a change in leadership.
“Jane has done a rock-solid job,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton). But, she said, Harman is just the latest in “an honor roll of Democrats who have either been [ranking members] or chairpersons, and they all rotated off.”
Replacing Harman with Hastings, an African American, may help Pelosi cement her own political standing, particularly with the Congressional Black Caucus. But Hastings could be a problematic pick for the Democrats.
Before becoming a member of Congress, he was forced to surrender his job as a federal judge after being indicted in 1981 on bribery charges. He was acquitted by a jury in 1983, but was impeached in 1988 by the House for conspiracy and making false statements in that same bribery case. Hastings was removed from the bench by the Senate the following year. That action did not prevent him from running for public office, however, and he was elected to the House in 1992.
The Congressional Black Caucus is supporting Hastings for the intelligence post, mindful that another of its members, Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), was passed over by Pelosi when the position was given to Harman in 2003.
Times staff writer John Balzar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.