A closed-door meeting last week between a half-dozen senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yielded an uneasy and potentially temporary truce between the two sides in the dispute over Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson’s (D) seat on the Ways and Means Committee.
Led by CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the contingent entered Pelosi’s office late last Wednesday to inform her that they planned to publicly and emphatically criticize her demand that Jefferson step down from the exclusive committee, according to an aide to a senior CBC member.
But they left the private meeting — for members only, not staffers — believing they had struck an implicit agreement with the Minority Leader: that the CBC would refrain from attacking Pelosi as long as she holds off taking any pre-indictment action against Jefferson, one of 43 CBC members.
“The message was, ‘We won’t escalate this any further if you don’t escalate it any further,’” the aide said.
Jefferson has been the subject of two FBI raids over an alleged bribery scheme. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Pelosi sent a letter to Jefferson — copies of which were circulated to the media — on Wednesday morning, requesting his resignation from the committee “in the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus.”
Jefferson quickly balked at the request, and the CBC members rallied behind him hours later at their weekly luncheon meeting, arguing that he was being unfairly singled out, since other Members — Democratic and Republican — who have been accused of, but not charged with, ethical improprieties have not been forced to surrender plum committee spots.
Those who attended the members-only CBC luncheon deferred comment afterward to the chairman. But CBC sources said Watt, who even before the luncheon was opposed to Pelosi’s request for Jefferson to step down, was satisfied that his view was the consensus opinion of the CBC. It was about four hours later that he and five other CBC members met with Pelosi.
“He had consensus before the meeting [with Pelosi] and when he left the meeting,” the same aide said. “Whatever was said during the meeting, they’re in a holding pattern now.”
Even though Jefferson has spurned Pelosi’s request, the Minority Leader still has two options if she wants to go to the mat over Jefferson’s committee ouster.
Pelosi could make her case to the Caucus’ Steering and Policy Committee, over which she holds considerable sway, and then take a favorable recommendation to the full Democratic Caucus. With the Caucus’ consent, the issue would then move to the House floor, where Republicans would not be expected to block it.
Alternately, Pelosi could bypass that process by bringing a privileged resolution to the House floor.
At her weekly press conference Thursday morning, Pelosi stuck to a tight script and refused to say how she’ll handle Jefferson’s insubordination.
“My letter speaks for itself,” Pelosi said. “I’ve asked him to resign immediately in the interest of upholding the high ethical standards of the Democratic Caucus.”
A senior Democratic source said Pelosi will not drop the matter, though the source said no decision had been made about how to proceed or the timetable for doing so.
Pelosi simply might be waiting for Jefferson’s fellow members to pressure him to quit. An indictment also would change the equation, freeing Pelosi to dump Jefferson with little to no interference from her fellow Democrats.
Watt and other CBC leaders are content to have Pelosi merely talk about the Jefferson matter as long as she doesn’t take pre-emptive action against the Louisianan. If Pelosi does take further steps before an indictment, CBC sources say, a loud and unified outcry from the CBC will ensue.
But there are suggestions from Pelosi’s side that not everyone in the CBC may agree with the group’s stance — something Pelosi carefully took stock of before sending her letter last week. They noted the consistent refusal of Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), a CBC member and the Caucus’ chairman, to express an opinion on the subject.