Pelosi turns on one-time ally in Democrats' 'catfight in Congress'

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The Independent US

Nancy Pelosi, set to become the first female Speaker after the Democrats' sweeping midterm victory, is embroiled in a second bitter intra-party battle before she even takes office in January - this time with another powerful Californian congresswoman over one of the most sensitive and important jobs on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Ms Pelosi suffered a stinging defeat when her chosen candidate for House majority leader was resoundingly defeated. Now a new showdown is approaching in what Washington insiders have called "the catfight": her efforts to deny Jane Harman, her one-time friend turned rival, the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.

Normally, Ms Harman, the most senior Democrat on the panel, would take charge automatically when her party assumes the majority in the House in January. She is a moderate, respected by Republicans as well as Democrats for her experience with intelligence issues. But that is to reckon without the animosity between her and Ms Pelosi, who as Speaker has untrammelled authority to choose committee chairmen.

Until a few years ago the two women, among the richest and most powerful in Congress, were allies. But for a variety of reasons, that has changed. One factor is ideology. The Speaker-elect, who represents San Francisco, belongs to the liberal wing of her party. Ms Harman, whose district is in Los Angeles, is by contrast a centrist and - worse still - held by Ms Pelosi and others to have been insufficiently tough on the Bush White House for its mishandling of intelligence before the Iraq war. Ms Pelosi voted against the 2003 invasion, while Ms Harman supported it.

But there is a personal animus as well. The two differ in style; Ms Pelosi is outgoing and wheeler-dealing. Ms Harman is cerebral, and sometimes abrasive. The Los Angeles Times, moreover, suggested yesterday that the former had been piqued when - even after Ms Pelosi had been elected Democratic leader in the House in 2002 - Ms Harman still received more media exposure, by dint of her position on the Intelligence Committee as Iraq dominated the headlines.

In other circumstances, the winner of this conflict would not be in doubt. A Speaker has the right to name whoever he or she chooses to chair committees without prior party approval, and Ms Harman would have little chance of preventing her ouster.

But Ms Pelosi's inept handling of the election for majority leader, the No. 2 post in the House hierarchy, has weakened her position. With her vigorous backing of John Murtha instead of her rival Steny Hoyer, she not only picked an unnecessary fight. She also picked one she could not win. Mr Hoyer's overwhelming 149-86 vote victory ended up by casting doubt on her command of her own troops.

Now comes the Intelligence Committee decision. Over the past few weeks, Ms Pelosi has indicated she planned to give the job to the outgoing panel's second-ranking Democrat, Alcee Hastings, despite strong advice from moderate Democrats, intelligence specialists and many newspaper editorialists, that she stick with Ms Harman.

Unfortunately, and just like Mr Murtha, Mr Alcee has a less than spotless ethics record. A former judge, he was impeached by Congress for conspiring to take bribes and removed from the federal bench in 1989. His elevation to one of the most sensitive jobs on Capitol Hill would risk making a mockery of the incoming Speaker's vow to run the "most honest, most ethical" Congress in history.

On the other hand, he is an African-American, and to bypass him in favour of a third candidate would upset the powerful black caucus of Congressional Democrats. In the end, Ms Pelosi is likely to play by the rules she knows. "If people are ripping your face off," she said of pre-election Republican attacks on her, "you have to rip their face off".