By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
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.
"I can't imagine that based on what's happened and what we've done [on ethics rules changes and lobbying legislation] that at the very least, he'll be asked to step down from committee," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who stressed that he was not speaking for the leadership. "We've set down a pretty clear marker about what's going to be expected."
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.
Democratic leaders scrambled last night to stay ahead of Boehner, seeking assurances from the ethics panel that an investigation of Jefferson that was authorized last year is well underway. Some Democrats made it clear they did not intend to let Republicans drive the process.
"For the good of the people of Louisiana's 2nd District, who have been through so much, we hope this matter is quickly resolved," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Senior leadership aides cautioned that a quick resignation under pressure could set a dangerous precedent, suggesting that a politicized Justice Department could target troublesome lawmakers with specious indictments. Jefferson spokeswoman Remi Braden-Cooper said that neither the congressman nor his staff had been contacted by the speaker's office.
But other Democratic aides said there was nothing specious about a 16-count indictment, complete with the lurid details of $90,000 in cash bundled in Jefferson's freezer. For Democrats, the vision of Jefferson moving about the Capitol for months would be a nightmare as they push to complete final ethics and lobbying changes.
With lawmakers just beginning to return to Washington from a week-long break, it was not clear last night whether Jefferson's indictment would unite Democrats against the nine-term House member, or whether it would reignite tensions between the black Caucus and Pelosi. She made a "culture of corruption" a central attack line in last year's campaign against Republicans.
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.