When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged scandal-plagued Rep. William Jefferson to quit his post on a powerful committee, she not only made Jefferson angry but many of his fellow black lawmakers as well.
“There’s no precedent for removing a member who has not been indicted from his committee,” said Rep. Al Wynn, D-Md., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Pelosi’s move is not without risk. The 43-member Congressional Black Caucus comprises the largest single bloc of House Democrats, and they’ll wield considerable clout if the party wins control of the House on Election Day.
The Black Caucus is a sometimes fractious group, and they’re not of a single mind on Jefferson, D-La., who’s the subject of a corruption probe.
Still, in a meeting Wednesday, prominent black lawmakers such as Black Caucus Chairman Mel Watt, D-N.C., let Pelosi know in no uncertain terms that they thought it unfair to seek Jefferson’s resignation from the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxes, trade and Social Security.
But regardless of the consequences for internal House Democratic politics, Pelosi, D-Calif., decided it was important to “uphold a high ethical standard that we have in our House Democratic Caucus.”
Privately, aides to Pelosi say black lawmakers are beginning to cool off. Jefferson’s legal problems are so profound — the FBI says it caught him on tape accepting a $100,000 bribe from an informant — that it’s difficult to muster a lot of enthusiasm in defending him.
Black Democrats of two minds
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said black lawmakers are of two minds: those who are upset that Jefferson is being treated differently and those who believe the overarching goal of taking back the House is more important. It is difficult for Democrats to gain political traction on ethics issues if they protect Jefferson.
Politics was the subject of a separate meeting Thursday as Black Caucus members met with Pelosi about Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. Some lawmakers complain that he has a heavy-handed style and has pressured them to do more fundraising for the party.
Rep. Barney Frank, a white Democrat from Massachusetts and a Pelosi confidant, said Pelosi was doing a good job handling a difficult situation.
“She speaks for most Democrats in asking him to step aside,” Frank said.