A drive by the Democratic leadership to strip embattled Rep. William Jefferson of his committee post triggered a backlash Thursday as the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the move and said the Louisianan deserves a "presumption of innocence."
The caucus chairman, Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, told reporters that some black voters might ask why action was sought against "a black member of Congress" when there was neither precedent nor rule for it.
Jefferson has not been indicted and has denied all wrongdoing in connection with a federal bribery investigation that has netted two convictions. He has rebuffed repeated calls from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and others to step aside until any involvement is clarified.
Watt spoke after a Democratic leadership group voted to strip Jefferson of his committee post, at least temporarily. The entire rank and file was then summoned to debate the issue but postponed a vote until next week.
"I can guarantee" Jefferson will not voluntarily step aside, said Melanie Roussell, his spokeswoman.
Has not been indicted
The congressman has not been indicted and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. He is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, with authority over taxes, Medicare, trade, Social Security and more.
Several officials said Jefferson had rebuffed a final appeal to step aside in a meeting with three fellow Democrats dispatched by party leaders. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the delicate nature of the conversation.
Within hours, the same leadership group met to vote on removing him from the panel, at least temporarily.
A vote by the full House would be required to force Jefferson to step aside.
Democrats intend to campaign against Republicans this fall by accusing them of presiding over a "culture of corruption." Jefferson's continued presence on the committee presumably would allow Republicans to blur the issue in the midterm elections.
While Jefferson has not been indicted, two men have been found guilty in the probe.
Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, was sentenced to eight years in prison last month for conspiring to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official.
Vernon Jackson, 53, chief executive of iGate Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based telecommunications company, pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.
FBI: Video of $100,000 exchange
Additionally, the FBI claims it videotaped the Louisianan last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents later found $90,000 of the money stashed in a freezer in his home.
FBI agents carried out a weekend search of Jefferson's congressional office last month, triggering an outpouring of criticism from congressional leaders claiming they had encroached on Congress' constitutional powers.
In response, Bush ordered the material taken be turned over the a Justice Department official not involved in the investigation.
Race was a further complication in the episode. Jefferson is black, and some Democrats say that black voters could be alienated if he is forced aside.
"The rule is you lose your leadership position or chairmanship" after indictment, said Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, who is also black.
Pelosi recently prevailed on Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, to step aside as senior member of the ethics committee after questions were raised about some of his legislative actions. But he remains a member of the Appropriations Committee, with broad authority over the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.