WASHINGTON – In a revealing test of her leadership, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Tuesday rejected a once-impeached congressman to head the House Intelligence Committee, a move that could blunt early criticism that she’s paying only lip service to ethics reform.

At the same time, Pelosi’s decision not to promote Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., an African-American, could ruffle her relations with black lawmakers.

Hastings was acquitted of federal bribery charges as a federal judge in the 1980s but impeached by the Senate and removed from the bench.

That does not mean that Pelosi will promote the panel’s senior Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., with whom she has frosty relations.

Instead, Democratic aides said the top contenders are Reps. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, Sanford Bishop Jr. of Georgia and Norm Dicks of Washington state. Reyes has the edge, Pelosi allies indicated. He was a 26-year agent and supervisor with the U.S. Border Patrol before his 1996 election to Congress, and currently is a senior member of the Intelligence panel.

Harman, who’s been the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee for four years, could not be reached for comment.

Hastings promised to work with whomever Pelosi chooses, but said he was disappointed and added cryptically: “Sorry, haters, God is not finished with me yet.”

Pelosi’s maneuvering on the Intelligence chairmanship comes two weeks after she lost a high-profile effort to topple her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in his bid to become majority leader. She unsuccessfully backed Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., but House Democrats stuck by Hoyer in a secret-ballot election.

After Pelosi rejected Hastings, the caucus chairman, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., issued an ambiguous response, saying Hastings “would have made an outstanding Intelligence chairman and we still hope he will at some point in our nation’s future.”

That raised questions in Washington about Pelosi’s judgment – why would she make her first post-election test a controversy where she’d be rejected by her troops? Her apparent decision to dump Harman raised similar questions, for in doing so she opened the door to the ethically stained Hastings, who was next in line – and the Congressional Black Caucus pushed publicly for his appointment.

Gary Jacobsen, a veteran analyst of Congress and political science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said that Pelosi’s eventual choice to lead the panel may not be noticed by most Americans, but that it “starts to set the tone. She’s trying to give the party an image of responsibility, that they can be trusted.

“Hastings raised questions on that front, and having him replaced by someone who is not a white male is also probably politically shrewd,” Jacobsen said, referring to Reyes, a Hispanic. “If you are setting aside an African-American member of Congress in an important position like that, you worry about offending the ethnic base of the party.”

From a policy standpoint, Pelosi’s choice could influence how actively the House Intelligence Committee challenges the Bush administration. The panel’s chairman defines the boundaries of inquiries into matters that might range from pre-war intelligence to domestic eavesdropping.

Although Pelosi and her aides won’t talk publicly about tensions with Harman, it’s known that Harman’s been in Pelosi’s doghouse because of her early support for the war in Iraq and other administration policies, a freelance style that’s sometimes cut Pelosi out of the loop, and her media campaign for the job when she heard Pelosi might pass her over.

Harman also is a regular on Sunday news shows, perhaps a sore point for Pelosi, who’s working to polish her television skills.

The other potential candidates are Bishop, an African-American, who previously served on the Intelligence panel, and Dicks, who was once in line to become chairman of the Intelligence Committee until Republicans took over the House in 1994.

Asked whether he would be interested in the job now, Dicks’ spokesman George Behan said: “It’s not going to happen.” Behan said Dicks has not talked with anyone in the Democratic leadership about the chairmanship and the congressman considered Reyes the “likely” choice.

As a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, Reyes has pushed to increase the role of minorities inside the nation’s intelligence agencies. He voted in favor of legislation in 2004 that created a national director of intelligence.

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