The House stripped Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of his committee seat on Friday in an unprecedented action against a lawmaker ensnared in scandal, but not under indictment.
The move came on a voice vote, without debate, and capped an election-year effort by House Democrats to seize the political high ground on the issue of lawmaker ethics.
Jefferson had refused to step aside voluntarily from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee before the corruption probe was completed. The drive to remove him from the committee, led by the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, sparked protests by black lawmakers who said Jefferson was being singled out unfairly.
Jefferson had no immediate response to the vote. On Thursday night, he issued a statement criticizing Pelosi over the “unprecedented and unfair nature of her request for me” to step aside.
Jefferson, who has denied wrongdoing and has not been indicted, was on the House floor at the time of the action. He and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus had been talking in a tight circle.
It was not clear what was said, or whether fellow Democrats had urged him once again to act on his own and avoid the stigma of being voted off the committee.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of the Democratic caucus, said he had intended to seek the move on Monday, but that Jefferson and Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, chairman of the CBC, recommended he proceed immediately.
Under House rules, any lawmaker could have sought a roll call vote. None did, meaning that Democrats, black lawmakers in particular, were spared the discomfort of having to take sides in public.
Clyburn told reporters that most members of the CBC did not want a vote.
On Thursday night, Democrats voted 99-58 to strip Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare and more.
“This isn’t about proof in a court of law. This is about an ethical standard,” Pelosi told reporters afterward.
Jefferson has not been indicted and maintains his innocence, although two men have been convicted in the probe and the FBI says it found $90,000 in bribe money in a food freezer in the congressman’s home.
In the wake of the vote by fellow Democrats, Jefferson had appeared to leave open the possibility he might step aside voluntarily, telling reporters, “I don’t want to speculate.”
The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, said after the Democrats’ vote that by taking the action they did, fellow Democrats chose “political expediency” or some other unacceptable factor over precedent. “Even at the end of the meeting, we don’t know what the standard has been,” he said.