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Harman's Two-Front War 

The veteran L.A. Democrat is under fire from her colleagues and her constituents

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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TROUBLE IS COMING DOUBLEfor Jane Harman. In her congressional district, which stretches along the coast from Venice to the harbor, the veteran Democrat faces a primary challenge — which, if not quite a threat, is now more than a nuisance — from Democratic activist Marcy Winograd. In the Capitol, Harman’s tenure as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is endangered as well, chiefly from the Democratic caucus’ rule on term limits for committee chairpersons and (when the party is in the minority) ranking minority members.

In each case, Harman is fighting back — more seriously, it seems, on Capitol Hill, where the danger to her status as the party’s chief maven on intelligence is more acute. Harman has always been a major player in the national security establishment — a fact I discovered during her first run for Congress back in 1992, when then–House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (who soon was to become Bill Clinton’s first secretary of defense) trundled out to Harman’s district to help her raise funds from L.A.’s aerospace industry. Very bright (she’s a Harvard Law grad from the days when the school admitted few women) and very aggressive, Harman didn’t always win lots of friends among her congressional colleagues, but she soon became a fixture within the Beltway defense intellectual community.

As ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Harman was privy to more of the administration’s case for the war than just about any Democrat on the Hill, though she cannot talk about the information — whether fact or fiction — the administration confided to her. Over the past two years, as the history of the administration’s refusal to consider any of the genuine intelligence about Iraq during the run-up to the war became glaringly obvious, Harman became a near regular on the Sunday talk shows, where she frequently voiced her objections — which were also the objections of the intelligence establishment — to the anti-empirical biases of the White House. But she had also been close to leading figures in the administration’s anti-empirical leadership — Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in particular — before the war went so obviously bad. And even in recent months, her defense-intelligence mindset has led her to take positions at odds with large numbers of her Democratic colleagues. It was her appearance on Meet the Press, when she expressed more concern about The New York Times’ revelations of the warrantless NSA wiretaps than she did about the wiretaps themselves, that prompted an appalled Winograd to run against her.

Harman’s Democratic colleagues’ discontent with her was growing, too. She was already seen as a member who got special treatment. She was out of the House for two years, from 1998 to 2000, when she gave up her seat for a gubernatorial bid in the 1998 Democratic primary. When she won the seat back in 2000, then–House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt restored her seniority — not the common practice within the Democratic caucus. When Nancy Pelosi succeeded Gephardt as leader, she jumped Harman over a more senior Democrat, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, to make her the ranking Democrat on Intelligence.

Now, by the term-limit rules the Democratic caucus has established, Harman’s time as the ranking Democratic intelligencer should run out at the end of the year. Harman, however, is fighting tooth and nail to hang on to the seat. A number of her House colleagues to whom I’ve spoken (none speaking for attribution) believe that a spate of recent articles attesting to the indispensability of Harman, and bemoaning her likely successor, Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings, were the result of Harman’s lobbying journalists to write on her behalf. (The most recent such piece was a Joe Klein column in Time.) Hastings may indeed pose a political problem for the Democrats, since he was impeached and removed from his federal judgeship two decades ago — though his service in Congress is considered unexceptional by the general public, if (not) also by his peers.

HARMAN’S DECISION TO GO PUBLIC with her campaign may not prove the best way to persuade the one person who can extend her tenure — Pelosi. “Having Joe Klein write up your point of view is not the most effective tactic to shape Pelosi’s thinking,” says one member. Moreover, say two members, Harman has also had some major contributors call Pelosi to impress upon her the importance of keeping Jane in place. According to these members, this tactic, too, hasn’t endeared Harman to Pelosi.

“There’s some caucus discontent with Jane,” says one veteran House staffer. “In her criticism of the administration, many members see her as just catching up with the Republicans.” The only House Democrat in recent memory to win an extension as a committee’s ranking member is South Carolina’s John Spratt, who the caucus agreed was an exceptional leader on the House Budget Committee, and who was also a Pelosi confidante. “She’d have to be truly exceptional and real close to Pelosi,” the staffer continues. “She’s not. She also has had some trouble with her Democratic colleagues on Intelligence, and Pelosi is aware that Jane hasn’t always played well with them.” Pelosi is also under further pressure to let Harman’s term expire from the Congressional Black Caucus, since both Bishop and Hastings are African-American. In the end, she may engineer a way to have Hastings get a permanent, powerful subcommittee chairmanship on another committee to enable yet another Democrat on the Intelligence committee to succeed Harman.

At home, meanwhile, Harman’s district has changed. In the ’90s, she represented the one L.A.-area district that was evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and her centrist politics were probably the only kind that could have prevailed in elections. But the district was reshaped in the 2002 reapportionment into a solidly liberal, Democratic seat — and Harman’s politics and occasionally bizarre votes (she was one of just two House Democrats to back the administration’s efforts to monitor the records of public libraries when the Patriot Act came up for reauthorization) are now out of sync with many of her constituents. Winograd lacks the resources to mount a serious conventional challenge, but in this year of voter discontent, Harman now has to battle on both coasts.

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