Takeover A Matter of Ethics

Pelosi Walks Tightrope Enforcing Rules

New Speaker Must Come to Terms With Her Party's Own Troubles

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 4, 2007; Page A01

First in a series of occasional articles on the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

On June 15, beneath the crystal chandeliers and Corinthian pilasters of the Cannon Caucus Room, House Democrats had to decide how they really felt about the "culture of corruption." After months of expressing outrage over Republican scandals, what would they do about the $90,000 the FBI had found in the freezer of one of their own?

To House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the answer was obvious: Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) had to give up his coveted spot on the Ways and Means Committee. But at the closed-door caucus meeting, several black Democrats complained that Pelosi was not their emperor or queen, while Jefferson implored his colleagues to keep him on Ways and Means for the sake of Hurricane Katrina's victims. No one spoke up for Pelosi -- except Pelosi.

She began by praising Jefferson's wife and five daughters: Jamila, Jalila, Jelani, Nailah and Akilah. But she quickly made it clear that Jefferson's legal problems had become her political problem: "I am not an emperor or a queen. But neither am I a fool."

Pelosi explained that Democrats should be the party of ethics, that appearances count, that dealing forcefully with Jefferson's scandal would help everyone else in the room. "You didn't elect me emperor or queen," she said. "You elected me leader."

The Democrats overwhelmingly voted Jefferson off the committee. And in November, Americans voted Democrats into the majority, citing corruption as one of the issues that soured them on the GOP.

Today, after becoming the first Democratic speaker in 12 years and the first female speaker in the history of the House, Pelosi will offer a comprehensive package of ethics reforms, a down payment on her pledge to run "the most ethical Congress ever."

But it is not yet clear whether Jefferson's ouster heralded a new era of honesty and accountability, or just a one-off political calculation inspired by the 2006 campaign. After the midterm elections, Pelosi ignored the ethical cloud around Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to support his bid to be majority leader, and she nearly chose Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) to chair the intelligence committee even though the House once impeached him when he was a federal judge. And, in December, when Jefferson faced a fight for his political life in a runoff against state Rep. Karen R. Carter, a black Democrat with none of his ethical baggage, Pelosi refused to get involved.

Today, Jefferson will take his seat in Pelosi's House. His inconvenient presence will be a constant reminder of the fine line the new speaker will have to walk between rhetoric and reality, between the cross-cutting demands of her caucus and the demands of the public.

"Pelosi wouldn't even take my calls," Carter said. "None of the Democrats in Washington would take my calls. They all said they wanted to get rid of corruption, but I guess it wasn't their top priority."

Pelosi and Jefferson declined to comment for this story. But Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said his boss will be as outspoken about ethics while in power as she was while in the minority.

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