Historic Number of Blacks Lead Congressional Committees

Juan Williams talks with Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and GOP strategist Robert Traynham about the new African- American committee chairs in Congress. What does this new change of power mean?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

With the start of 110th Congress, five African-Americans will rise to committee chairman status. That's a historic high. NEWS AND NOTES is profiling Congressional Black Caucus members and we've spoken with several of these key committee chairs.

But what exactly do these committees do, and what is this new change of power mean? We turn now to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Welcome to Political Corner. Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Democratic presidential Al Gore in 2000 joins us today. Ms. Brazile now runs her own political consulting firm here in Washington. And Robert Traynham, Republican political strategist in Washington, is also with us. Robert, Donna, welcome to Political Corner.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Political Strategist): Thank you, Juan.

Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Republican Political Strategist): Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, let's look at the list. Bennie Thompson from Mississippi will head up Homeland Security. Charlie Rangel of New York will head up Ways and Means. John Conyers of Michigan will head up the Judiciary Committee. Juanita Millender-McDonald from California will be in charge of House Administration. And Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio will be heading up the Ethics Committee. Donna Brazile, what does this mean?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, for the first time in the history of our republic, African-Americans will exert real political power. Already, Bennie Thompson, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, led the floor debate on the implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations. So this is an opportunity for African-Americans to exert their political influence, use their political capital to not only help pass a Democratic agenda, but to also help set policy for the United States Congress.

WILLIAMS: Robert, what does it look like from the Republican side?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, Juan, it's a very interesting dynamic. You know, when African-Americans travel in and around the United States, Bennie Thompson is responsible for the - to a certain degree for their security. When African-Americans pay taxes, Charlie Rangel is responsible for the tax oversight, and John Conyers from a judiciary standpoint. And so, what this means from a Republican perspective is that we're going to be looking at these chairmen with a raised eyebrow.

And the reason why is because we want limited government. We want to make sure that taxes remain low. We want to make sure that civil liberties are protected. And these African-Americans are in a significant amount of power. We want to make sure that they use that and use it very wisely.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile, let's look at exactly the power that someone like Charlie Rangel will have as the head of the House Ways and Means Committee. What does House Ways and Means Committee do?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, as you well know, that the House Ways and Means Committee is one of the most important committees on Capitol Hill. In addition to have an oversight of taxes and tariffs and all of our trade deals, Mr. Rangel will have an important role in helping to shape a new prescription drug plan that the Democrats hope to offer in the first 100 hours. The Ways and Means Committee also has oversight over social security, unemployment benefits, Medicare, enforcing the child support laws, and foster care.

So this is a very important committee at a time when the country is trying to find ways to lower prescription drugs prices, provide health benefits to all Americans. And of course the United States has several trade deals out there that must be renegotiated this Congress.

WILLIAMS: Well, we need to move on to the next topic, which is the Judiciary Committee headed by John Conyers of Michigan. And Robert, here's a situation where President Bush has already said he's not going to re-nominate three very conservative judges that he had been wanting to get on the federal bench, in large part because you have Democrats now in control of the Congress and a John Conyers in control of the Judiciary Committee.

Is this more - is this exactly what we can expect in the future, that Conyers will block conservative judges as head of judiciary?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Mr. Conyers does have significant power as chair of the Judicial Committee on the House side. And the president did the right thing. He took those names out, simply because he wants to try to work in a bipartisan way.

WILLIAMS: And what about impeachment? Any chance of that?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: He float that idea out there. In fact, he actually placed something on his Web site. I want to say that was in June of '06, where he specifically said that the president should be impeached. So I've noticed that he's been very quiet over the last couple of months, in reference to that, I think because Speaker Pelosi for the most part put tape over his mouth. But the fact of the matter is that you have a very radical left person that is chair of the Judiciary Committee that wants to impeach the president.

WILLIAM: Well, Donna Brazile?

Ms. BRAZILE: Let me disagree. I've worked with Mr. Conyers over the years. He's a very thoughtful legislator. He's been in the Congress for many years. And he's someone who knows how to cross the political divide and work with Republicans to try to get things done.

After all, we have a Voting Rights Act today because John Conyers was willing to sit down with Mr. Sensenbrenner to put that legislation forward, to amend it, and to strengthen it, and then to send it to the floor where it received almost unanimous support. And of course the president signed it this past July.

WILLIAMS: So what you're saying is, this is a real expansion, expression of power, minority power, in mainstream American politics in an unprecedented way. We'll have to see how it plays out.

Robert Traynham is a Republican political strategist in Washington; Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000. She now runs her own political consulting firm. Robert, Donna, thanks so much for joining us on Political Corner.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you, Juan.

Ms. BRAZILE: Come celebrate with me, Robert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I'll call you later, Donna.

CHIDEYA: NPR's Juan Williams brings us news from the Hill every Thursday, right here on Political Corner.

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