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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), embroiled in a career-threatening federal ethics investigation, to surrender his plum committee assignment. But the eight-term Congressman is showing no inclination to agree to the move, and it will likely be up to the entire Democratic Caucus to settle the matter.
A day after meeting with her fellow Democratic leaders and a handful of influential members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Pelosi fired off a one-sentence letter to Jefferson on Wednesday morning, demanding he stand down from his Ways and Means slot, “in the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus.”
The public nature of Pelosi’s action — a copy of the letter was promptly offered to members of the media — suggested the hand of election year politics was at work, with the Minority Leader concerned that Jefferson’s defiance in the face of multiple FBI raids and a damning affidavit might blunt the impact of the “culture of corruption” cudgel she and her fellow Democrats have been wielding against the GOP.
But while moving against an allegedly corrupt politician probably isn’t a risky move for Pelosi in the court of public opinion, her decision has put her at odds with a crucial segment of her Caucus: the 43 members of the CBC. And with Jefferson, who responded to Pelosi’s letter with a lengthy epistle of his own, digging his heels in, the whole matter figures to linger in the media spotlight for the foreseeable future.
Pelosi’s only recourse now is to seek Jefferson’s expulsion from Ways and Means, which would require the consent of the Democratic Caucus and a vote of the full House. The last House Member to be forcibly stripped of a committee assignment appears to have been then-Rep. Phil Gramm (Texas), who was booted from the Budget Committee for supporting Ronald Reagan’s budgets. Gramm would later switch parties and win election to the Senate as a Republican.
Booting Jefferson would require Pelosi to follow a three-step process. First, she would need to win a recommendation from the Steering and Policy Committee — likely a formality since that body that is chaired by a key Pelosi ally, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), and packed with Pelosi loyalists. The issue would then move to the full Caucus for what would amount to the climactic moment: If the Caucus approved Jefferson’s removal, the full House would follow suit, unless Republicans rallied to Jefferson’s defense, something that appears highly unlikely.
Complicating this next phase, however, is the calendar. With no votes scheduled for Friday, most Members are expected to leave town for the Memorial Day recess on Thursday night, not to return until early June. The next Caucus meeting isn’t scheduled until June 8, and Caucus rules require 50 signatures to move that date up. As of late Wednesday afternoon, there was no Steering and Policy Committee meeting on the docket for the rest of this week.
A senior Democratic aide indicated that Pelosi was inclined to move forward on the matter, but that the timing and details were still being discussed.