WASHINGTON -- Among the decisions facing Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, few are trickier than the selection of a leader for the sensitive post of House Intelligence chairman.
Many Democrats say her likely pick is Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida congressman and longtime committee member whose personal history could become a political liability for the party. Before his election to Congress in 1992, he was impeached by the House for bribery and perjury and stripped of his job as a federal judge.
"It looks like it could get really ugly," said Marvin C. Ott, a former top aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee who worked for both parties.
Another former congressional intelligence aide said choosing Hastings would amount to tacking a "big kick-me sign on [the Democrats'] rear end."
Hastings was charged with conspiring to accept a $150,000 bribe to lighten the sentencing in a case before him and then lying about it during his 1983 trial, which acquitted him. But two judges filed a complaint contesting the ruling, and a special judicial panel recommended in 1986 that Congress impeach him.
Some Republicans are already speaking out against the prospect of Hastings as committee chairman.
"This is stunning," said Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican who served on the panel that investigated Hastings in 1988. "Would someone like this pass a background review at the CIA or FBI?" he said.
The senior Democrat on the Intelligence committee, California Rep. Jane Harman, has lobbied heavily for the job. In her four years leading the Democrats on the committee, she has cut a high profile, advocating for a national spy chief and other intelligence reforms.
Harman was reported to be under investigation for improperly seeking help from a lobbying group in her behind-the-scenes campaign to retain her position on the committee. However, the FBI has found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, a committee member and longtime Pelosi friend, said that the panel would have a new Democratic leader, implying the post would not go to Harman, who has reached the end of the eight-year limit for service on the committee.
Pelosi has said in post-election interviews that she might put a new committee member on board as chairman -- a strategy some Democrats have recommended.
The selection of an Intelligence chairman, pitting a liberal Pelosi loyalist against a more moderate figure, is one of a series of internal power struggles among House Democrats that has the potential to divide the party on the heels of its electoral victory. The controversy has been brewing for more than a year, since Pelosi told colleagues she was unlikely to extend Harman's tenure in favor of Hastings.
A member of the Intelligence panel for seven years, Hastings has cultivated a reputation as serious and articulate, said several Democrats, including some who see his past as potentially problematic.
"He has worked well with both Republicans and Democrats," said Eshoo. "He's had a long, rather distinguished, tenure in the Congress."
Hastings declined to comment through his chief of staff, Fred Turner.
Hastings has the support of fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Pelosi, like other Democratic leaders, is under growing pressure to pay greater attention to African-Americans, a loyal constituency that has become increasingly restive over what it regards as the party's failure to take its needs into account and reward it for its support. A potentially damaging fight for the third-ranking post in the Democratic leadership was avoided when Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel decided not to challenge Rep. James E. Clyburn, a black congressman from South Carolina, for the job of whip, the job currently held by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who is trying to move up to majority leader.
Should Hastings assume the chairmanship, Democrats said, he is unlikely to launch major investigations. Instead, they expect him to zero in on privacy concerns, hold more open hearings and focus on areas of the world that have gotten little attention, such as Africa and Latin America.
Hastings might also revisit the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, they said.
"Real oversight has been neglected," said Eshoo, vowing that Democrats would take a hard look at the implementation of the intelligence reforms passed two years ago.
According to congressional aides, Pelosi and Harman have tussled over the years -- in part because Harman is a more hawkish Democrat on security issues -- which made Pelosi unwilling to let her remain on the panel, even though the committee's top Democrat and Republican are exempt from the term limits.
Pelosi had said Hastings was next in line for the Democrats' top slot on that committee, a signal that was particularly important since Harman leapfrogged another Congressional Black Caucus member, Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, to become the top Democrat on the committee in 2002.
Pelosi is "in a tight spot with respect to the CBC," said a former top Democratic congressional aide. "If it was somebody else who was next in line to be chair, she might be able to get away with" letting Harman stay. Congressional Black Caucus spokeswoman Myra Dandridge said her members would be upset if Hastings did not get the chairmanship.
If Hastings is selected, a Republican attack could backfire, warned Ron Marks, a former CIA official who also worked as an intelligence aide to Senate Republicans. They will have to be careful with "how they play that card," he said, noting that taking on the Congressional Black Caucus is risky for Republicans.
Leadership fights aside, intelligence is an issue Democrats could turn to their advantage, if they probe U.S. intelligence activities and spending without grandstanding or appearing to use it for partisan gain, said Marks. "If they are smart, they could win on it," he said.
Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he hopes Democrats will steer the committee out of the partisan stalemate, adding that he has been "very disturbed" by the squabbling on the committee. "We've got to refocus," said Ruppersberger, a member of the panel.
He pointed to several issues in need of stronger oversight by Congress, including the effectiveness of the satellite intelligence collection efforts and the NSA warrantless surveillance program.
He said he has other concerns about the NSA that he cannot talk about because of classification restrictions, though he said some of them have been reported in The Sun. In the past year, The Sun has reported on the failure of a $1.2 billion threat analysis program, holes in its computer security efforts, and its looming electricity crisis.
On the Senate side, the chairmanship is expected to go to Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, currently the top-ranking Democrat.