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White House has an ally in black caucus, leader says, but not a rubber stamp

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:33 AM

Since becoming the incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus this week, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) has stressed the need for the caucus to chart its own course.

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Cleaver said he recognizes both the need to support President Obama and that the agendas of the black caucus and the White House sometimes conflict.

"The CBC has had disagreement with every president that has come to office since it was created," Cleaver said. "All of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh my goodness, black people are disagreeing with somebody black.' There is absolutely no way that we can function in a manner consistent with the wishes of our constituents and always be in lockstep with the president."

Even so, he said, Obama knows that he has an ally in the CBC. In a phone conversation with White House staffers this week, Cleaver began discussing ways the two groups can work together.

Cleaver, a minister from Kansas City, was unanimously selected by the 42-member caucus to take over leadership of the group from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

The caucus has spent the past year carefully navigating its relationship with the White House - seeking to press Obama to target more stimulus funds to the minority community, which has suffered from disproportionately high unemployment rates. The president declined, saying his efforts would help all Americans and "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Cleaver will have to contend with that tension. The ACLU scores his voting record at 93 percent, yet he is considered a moderate in relation to his liberal colleagues in the black caucus. And unlike most members of the CBC, his district is not majority-black.

Both he and other members of the caucus said they welcome the two black Republicans who were elected to Congress this month. Rep.-elect Allen West (Fla.) has said that he plans to join the caucus to bring a different view to the group's deliberations. During some meetings, though, such as when the caucus discusses Democratic strategy, the Democratic members intend to break off from West. (Rep.-elect Tim Scott of South Carolina has said it is not likely that he'll join the CBC.)

"There are going to be some times when it makes no sense for the caucus to deal with an issue that is an anathema to one or two members," Cleaver said. "We'll make whatever adjustment needed to do that."

Among Cleaver's priorities will be turning the attention of the caucus to environmental and energy policy - which would allow its members to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department on developing green jobs in their districts, many of which face high unemployment rates.

Other than that, Cleaver said he expects the CBC to take up many of the issues they have dealt with in the last four decades.

"I wish I could tell you that most of the issues we are going to approach are new and contemporary, but the truth of the matter is the Congressional Black Caucus -painfully and tragically - must champion the same issues that our founders dealt with in 1971," he said. "One would hope that the day would have already arrived when ... African Americans are not struggling legislatively to have issues redressed."

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