Black Caucus Flexes Muscle In Dispute With Pelosi

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus

hide captionMembers of the Congressional Black Caucus, including its chairwoman, California Democrat Barbara Lee (center), and New York Democrat Charles Rangel (to the right of Lee), listen to a question from the media in front of the West Wing of the White House in March, after meeting with President Obama.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of House Democrats' vote Wednesday on whether to keep Speaker Nancy Pelosi as their leader in the next Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus is still threatening to block her path unless she takes care of one of their own.

House Democratic leaders have yet to satisfy the demands of African-American lawmakers that Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina be given real authority as the third-ranking Democrat under Pelosi once the party returns to the minority in January. Some caucus members have suggested that they might side with moderate Democrats in a vote to restrict Pelosi's power if she doesn't clearly define the proposed role she has created for Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in Congress.

For the time being, the black caucus has decided to withhold its approval of the Pelosi leadership team.

Trouble For Two Caucus Stalwarts

The Congressional Black Caucus is poised to expand its influence in the Democratic Party even as ethical concerns swirl around two longtime members.

The caucus was stung Tuesday when a House ethics panel convicted one of its founding members, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, on 11 counts of ethics violations. Rangel, 80, has served for 40 years and is one of the most senior members of the House, having chaired the Ways and Means Committee before the House investigation forced him to relinquish his gavel.

The full ethics committee will meet to determine his punishment, which could include a fine, loss of House privileges or censure.

"That one hurts to the core," said Kevin Wardally, who managed Rangel's successful re-election campaign this year. "I believe history is going to treat Congressman Rangel as a real hero, someone who has passed more bills and done more for people of color and the poor than anyone in the past 40 years."

On Nov. 29, the House ethics trial begins for another caucus standard-bearer, the firebrand Rep. Maxine Waters of California. She has been accused of ethics violations in connection with a small minority-owned bank that received federal bailout funds while her husband served on the bank's board and held a financial stake in the institution. Waters, a member of the Financial Services Committee, has denied any wrongdoing.

— Corey Dade

The maneuver signals the potential for the Congressional Black Caucus to wield more intraparty influence after becoming one of the few Democratic contingents to survive the Nov. 2 elections with its membership intact. After the Republican wave decimated the ranks of Blue Dogs and moderates, the black caucus's 41 House members will make up nearly a quarter of that chamber's Democrats in the new Congress.

Looking For More Than Ceremonial Role

Pelosi's team faces no serious competition Wednesday, but her decision to keep Clyburn on board is a nod to the pivotal role he and other black lawmakers might play over the next two years.

Currently, Pelosi's No. 2 is Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and her No. 3 is Clyburn, the majority whip. The party in the minority traditionally has only two leaders. Pelosi's campaign for the top post of minority leader ignited a battle between Hoyer and Clyburn for the No. 2 role of minority whip.

It became clear that Hoyer had more support from fellow Democrats to become minority whip, but the Congressional Black Caucus formally endorsed Clyburn, arguing that its membership deserved a place in the leadership. As a compromise, Pelosi announced that she would nominate Clyburn as the third-ranking "assistant leader," a position she created. Clyburn accepted the offer last week.

In the days ahead of Wednesday's vote, Pelosi hasn't clearly defined Clyburn's duties, raising concerns among black lawmakers that assistant leader could be a marginal or ceremonial post. Appearing on CNN Tuesday, black caucus chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) said her group is "working with" Pelosi to fill out Clyburn's "portfolio."

A Swing Vote Bloc?

To be sure, strict House rules limit the Democrats' ability to stop the agenda of the new Republican majority. And while black caucus members fared well on Election Day, they will lose significant power when control flips to the Republicans — specifically, two committee chairmanships and 17 subcommittee chairmanships.

Yet, in the new session, some black lawmakers believe the caucus, as a voting bloc, could act as a swing vote on measures that divide the new Republican majority.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who will take over as black caucus chairman, sees such an opportunity in January, when the body could have to decide whether to extend unemployment insurance. Over the past year, Congress has extended the benefits with bipartisan support given the widespread joblessness across most congressional districts. Conservative Republicans have vowed to oppose another extension, while black caucus members and other Democrats and some moderate Republicans support an extension.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn looks at his BlackBerry during a break from a caucus meeting. i i

hide captionJames Clyburn (D-SC), currently the House majority whip, takes a short break during a Democratic caucus meeting in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in March.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Majority Whip James Clyburn looks at his BlackBerry during a break from a caucus meeting.

James Clyburn (D-SC), currently the House majority whip, takes a short break during a Democratic caucus meeting in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in March.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"A lot of Republicans are going to have to be very careful about their votes, because they have people back home who are not as ideological as they are," Cleaver says. "Any time we don't have a 100 percent vote on the Republican side, then the Congressional Black Caucus can flex its muscle."

The caucus may face a challenge in keeping its agenda and message partisan if it admits one or both of the black Republican congressmen-elects as members. Florida Rep.-elect Allen West has expressed an interest in joining, but South Carolina's Tim Scott has remained noncommittal. The caucus has publicly said membership is nonpartisan, though all of its current members are Democrats.

West, a conservative backed by Tea Party groups, has criticized the caucus as "monolithic" and ineffective in addressing the ills of black communities. Cleaver said West's characterization isn't accurate but said, "We need to sit down and intelligently discuss with him what becoming a member of the caucus will mean."

Looking Toward 2012

The caucus members' greatest impact may be seen outside the Capitol leading up to 2012. They will be counted on to help generate large turnouts of black voters, who will be pivotal in helping to re-elect President Obama and in the Democrats' aim to retake the House. Senior analyst David Bositis, at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, estimates that roughly 35 million people who voted for Obama in 2008 didn't vote in November — presenting a potentially captive audience for Democrats.

Their ability to turn out black voters also will be a critical part of the Democrats' strategy of retaking moderate congressional districts won by Republicans this year. Higher black turnout on Nov. 2 might have prevented nearly two dozen seats from going to the GOP, according to Bositis and some Democratic strategists.

Clyburn, in a letter written to fellow House members accepting Pelosi's offer to remain on her team, addressed the potential strength of the black and Hispanic caucuses: "The road back to the majority runs largely through these caucuses and the communities they represent."

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