Democratic leaders fear that Rep. William J. Jefferson’s indictment yesterday on racketeering and bribery charges, coming exactly one year after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engineered his ouster from the powerful Ways and Means Committee, could rekindle a smoldering dispute between the speaker and black lawmakers who were once pillars of her power.
For months, the Louisiana Democrat’s mounting legal peril has bedeviled Democrats as they sought first to point to corruption as a tool to oust Republicans from control of Congress, then pressed for ethics and lobbying changes that they said would usher in a new era of clean politics on Capitol Hill. For every thrust Democrats made against the GOP, Republicans parried with Jefferson, saying problems in Congress were bipartisan.
Through it all, much of the Congressional Black Caucus has stood by Jefferson and against the Democratic leadership. And yesterday, Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), a veteran caucus member, said it would be “as supportive of our colleague as possible, in terms of saying a person in America is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Pelosi would not say what actions she would take, but she called the charges “extremely serious” and, if true, “an egregious and unacceptable abuse of public trust and power.”
“Democrats are committed to upholding a high ethical standard and eliminating corruption and unethical behavior from the Congress,” she said.
The Democratic steering committee, which sets committee assignments, will convene this week to consider whether to remove Jefferson from his last committee post: a seat on the Small Business Committee, a relative backwater of power. Senior House Democratic leadership aides said he almost certainly would be dropped. Some leadership aides suggested emissaries could be dispatched within days to ask for Jefferson’s resignation from the House.
Last year, Republicans faced a predicament as two indicted members, Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Robert W. Ney (Ohio), held on for months against calls for their resignation. Now the tables have turned, with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) moving as soon as today to seek an ethics committee review of Jefferson’s indictment, with instructions to report back within 30 days on whether he should be expelled. The resolution would also force a vote to strip Jefferson of his last committee seat.
A serious rupture with the black caucus would divide Democrats at a time when unity is needed to confront Republicans on the war in Iraq and as they face off with President Bush on domestic spending. Despite Davis’s initial statement of support, many prominent black lawmakers remained silent. A spokesman for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said she would not discuss Jefferson’s case.
But last June, many members of the caucus were incensed when the Democratic Caucus voted to remove Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee, where he had a hand in tax, trade and health-care policy. Federal investigators were closing in on Jefferson, with guilty pleas from his business associates and word of cash found bundled in his freezer.
The black caucus accused Pelosi of a racially tinged double standard. As she was moving against Jefferson, she allowed Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who is white, to remain on the Appropriations Committee despite dealing with his own federal investigation. Mollohan, now chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the departments of Commerce and Justice, did recuse himself in issues involving federal law enforcement.