Pelosi Defers Harman Rift

Posted April 22, 2009 at 6:48pm

Updated 9:55 a.m.

As den mother to the House Democratic Caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) does not abide attacks on her own.

So the real-life grandmother of eight on Wednesday stepped up her defense of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a sometimes-rival now battling allegations that she was caught on a wiretap agreeing to seek leniency for two suspected spies in return for help pushing Pelosi to grant her the House Intelligence chairmanship.

“I have great confidence in Jane Harman,— Pelosi said. “She’s a patriotic American. She would never do anything to hurt her country.—

But past scrapes between the two powerful California women — most notably over Harman’s aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign for the Intelligence gavel — reverberated through the Speaker’s pushback.

Pelosi went out of her way at a midday session with reporters on Wednesday to explain that the sole reason Harman was not granted the chairmanship when Democrats retook the majority was that she had already served two terms as the top Democrat on the panel.

“The only reason that Jane is not the chairman was because she had already served the two terms,— Pelosi said. “It had nothing to do with her position on Iraq, had nothing to do with donors, had nothing to do eavesdropping, wiretapping. It had nothing to do with anything. It had only to do with the fact that this extraordinarily talented Member of Congress had served her two terms.—

House rules at the time allowed Harman to stay in the job indefinitely, but Pelosi pointed to what she called the custom of a two-term limit. At the time in 2005, Democratic sources said, Harman made an early, forceful push to remain the top Democrat on the panel, solidifying Pelosi’s opposition.

By then, the two had also staked out widely divergent positions on the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror, a policy dispute that several Democratic sources said soured what had been a long-held political alliance.

The two lawmakers had similar pedigrees: women of the same generation, both from privileged backgrounds who sought careers in California politics around the same time. Pelosi, who won her San Francisco-based seat in 1987, recruited Harman to run for her Los Angeles-area seat in 1992, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said. After Harman quit the House in 1998 for an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, Pelosi helped lure her back two years later with the promise of restoring her seniority.

But Harman staked out hawkish ground in the runup to the Iraq War, using the perch Pelosi had granted her as the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel to hit the television circuit in support of the war. Pelosi was opposed — and bristled at Harman’s publicity tour.

“They had a core disagreement about what the intelligence meant,— one senior Democratic aide said, adding that Pelosi “took exception to her using the seat as a platform to support the president.—

From Harman’s perspective, “there was no place for politics when it came to intelligence. She tried to call it like she saw it,— another Democratic aide said.

Rightly or wrongly, most Democratic observers still attribute Harman’s failure to secure the gavel at least in part to the breach with Pelosi over the war — and Harman’s quiet push for it, for which she enlisted big-name Democratic donors.

One of them, Haim Saban, was reportedly the subject of the wiretap that ensnared Harman. Pelosi acknowledged Wednesday that she had heard from “many, many, many of Jane’s friends— about the chairmanship, but said none of those calls was threatening.

Pelosi denied, however, that Harman had ever been guaranteed the slot in writing. “I’ve heard some people say to me, Oh, she was promised in writing that she would be the chairman.’ Completely not so,— she said. Harman made that assertion herself in a Tuesday appearance on MSNBC, saying, “I believed I had been promised that in writing by the Democratic leadership and I was disappointed not to get it.—

Harman got something of a consolation prize with the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, and several Democratic lawmakers said she and Pelosi have a fully functional professional rapport. But some also noted that the two are hardly close.

“I don’t think they’re bosom buddies,— one Democratic Member said. “They’re very professional: They get their business done and they do what they need to do. If you saw them together, you wouldn’t know there’s a problem. But they’re not chums.—

Either way, Democratic lawmakers said it is no surprise that Pelosi would be going to bat for Harman now. “I think Pelosi feels her job as a good leader is to defend her constituents,— one Member said.

Pelosi revealed Wednesday that she learned “a few years ago— from National Security Agency officials that Harman had been recorded in a wiretapped conversation. But the Speaker said she was not told what federal eavesdroppers picked up on the call — and never alerted Harman to it. Congressional Quarterly reported on the wiretapped conversation Sunday.

“It was not my position to raise it with Jane Harman,— Pelosi said. “In fact, I didn’t even know if what they were talking about was real. All they said was that she was wiretapped.—

Most House Republicans have quietly watched the wiretap dust-up from a distance, with some aides fueling the fire by sending around clips about the embattled California Democrat. Others, such as Rep. John Carter (Texas), secretary of the House Republican Conference, planned future assaults.

John Stone, a spokesman for Carter, said the Harman scandal would be addressed as a part of the House Accountability Project — a series of special orders Carter began in January to highlight Democratic missteps.

Republican campaign operatives are also watching closely to see how the imbroglio unfolds.

“Her questionable ethics have certainly perked our interest,— a GOP operative said.

Not all Republicans are lying in wait.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), Intelligence chairman when Harman served as ranking member, said he hopes everything turns out well for Harman when all the facts are revealed.

“I had a tremendous amount of respect for Jane,— he said. “She’s a friend.—

Asked whether he could also have been recorded in a wiretap, Hoekstra said that to his knowledge he has not, but said he was aware that it was a possibility if he was talking to another country’s intelligence entity.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.