Correction to This Article
A Nov. 16 Federal Page article about the Congressional Black Caucus incorrectly identified David Bositis as a researcher for the caucus. He is a researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Black Lawmakers in Line for Key Posts

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Three days after workers broke ground for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall, the Congressional Black Caucus is preparing to break new ground of its own.

Five of its members are poised to take the helm of key House committees when Democrats assume control of Congress next year: John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) of Judiciary, Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.) of intelligence, Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.) of House Administration, Reps. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) of Ways and Means, and Bennie Thompson (Miss.) of Homeland Security.

Another member, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), is slated to be named majority whip, which would make him the third-ranking Democrat in the House. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the presumed speaker of the 110th Congress, has campaigned on his behalf.

"If they accede to that much power, it would truly be the realization of the kind of dream we've been waiting for since the civil rights movement," said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor and a former political strategist who is black.

But, said Walters, that is a big "if." The appointment of Millender-McDonald is less certain than those of some of the others, and Hastings faces a steep uphill climb in his bid for the intelligence post because of past ethics problems.

On top of all that, Black Caucus members, who tend to be more liberal, might find it hard to push their traditional social agenda. Conservative and moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats, whose numbers are nearly equal to those of Black Caucus members, have vowed to counter agendas that they deem too liberal.

Rangel, the likely chairman of Ways and Means, which he called the "most important and most powerful" committee, said conservative Democrats need not worry.

"I'm excited to participate in a kinder and gentler Congress," he said. Congress under Republican leadership "was a heavy blow . . . to me personally," he added. ". . . People not talking to each other. It was a nightmare."

For Pelosi, the decision of whether to appoint Hastings as intelligence chairman is something of a headache. Hastings is haunted by accusations that, as a judge, he accepted a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a lenient sentence in a perjury case.

Hastings was acquitted of bribery and perjury charges by a jury in a criminal trial, but the House impeached him in 1989, and the Senate later removed him from the bench. When Hastings challenged the decision in federal court, a judge, Stanley Sporkin, ruled in his favor and remanded the case to the Senate. The removal was eventually upheld.

One political hurdle for Hastings to overcome in chairing such a sensitive panel as the intelligence committee stems from his long-standing legal debts, which, according to his most recent financial statement, amounted to between $2.1 million and $7.35 million last year. Hastings listed assets worth less than $15,000 in the statement, filed in May.

Pelosi's office declined to comment on Hastings's possible appointment, except to say that he and Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are vying for the chairmanship. She is already under fire for her decision to support Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) as majority leader, despite ethical issues in his past.

Black Caucus Chairman Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) said the Hastings decision should be a done deal. "The leadership told us a long time ago that it was going to happen, and I believe it's going to happen," he said.

The caucus was founded in 1969 by 13 members who joined forces to address African American concerns, according to its Web site. In the recent midterm elections, its membership grew in number, to 42, and in diversity, with a Jamaican American, a Muslim and a Buddhist joining its ranks.

The coalition was at the height of its power in 1994, said David Bositis, a researcher for the Congressional Black Caucus, but Republicans seized control from Democrats that year and sank the caucus into obscurity. In recent years, it had to beg members of the Bush administration for an audience it rarely got.

Clyburn, the presumed incoming majority whip, said he will work to stamp out the racial perceptions of black Democrats, particularly among those who said -- on background -- that he is not traditionally suited for the job, which normally goes to a skilled backroom dealer and fundraiser.

"People tend to look at you and pigeonhole you based on what they see," Clyburn said, bristling. " 'I know he can't raise money because black folks can't raise money.' I think I earned this position, and I intend to claim it based on my record."

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