House Democrats will decide next week whether to remove Rep. William Jefferson from a powerful committee pending the outcome of a federal investigation of the Louisiana Democrat on possible bribery charges.

“We will take it up next Thursday,” said Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives.

House Democrats huddled behind closed doors late Thursday following a rare meeting by party leaders who recommended that Jefferson be removed from the Ways and Means Committee, according to one Democrat. The panel has vast power over tax, international trade and health policy.

The House Democratic Steering Committee, leadership group, voted for Jefferson’s “temporary removal” from the panel, the House Democrat told Reuters. That was followed by a brief meeting of all House Democrats, who will reconvene next week to vote on Jefferson’s status.

If House Democrats vote to kick Jefferson off the panel, the full House would then vote on his removal.

“He is not stepping down,” Jefferson’s spokeswoman Melanie Roussell told Reuters, indicating a looming showdown between the congressman and his fellow Democrats.

The Justice Department is investigating whether Jefferson took more than $400,000 in bribes to promote Internet technology in West Africa. Jefferson denies any wrongdoing.

The investigation been known publicly since August, when the FBI raided Jefferson’s homes in Washington and New Orleans.

A former Jefferson staffer and a Kentucky businessman have pleaded guilty to bribing him in connection with African telecommunications venture. The FBI has said it videotaped Jefferson accepting a bribe and found $90,000 in his freezer.

Rep. Melvin Watt, the North Carolina Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was “absolutely not happy about the process that’s been followed here or the recommendation.” Watt noted that Jefferson has not been indicted and should not be presumed guilty.

Last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, failed to persuade Jefferson to temporarily step down from the committee voluntarily.

Democrats were hoping to swiftly deal with the ethics problem to show during this election year that they are tough on such matters. They want to keep the focus on several Republicans facing criminal probes that Democrats charge have contributed to a “culture of corruption” in the Republican-controlled House.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who gave his farewell address to the House, is under indictment. At least one other Republican, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, is under federal investigation. Several former congressional aides have also been caught in scandal.

DeLay and Ney, like Jefferson, deny any illegal activity. Ney has voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

The Jefferson probe took a controversial turn last month when FBI agents entered his Capitol Hill office and seized a computer hard drive and two boxes of papers.

The search outraged House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, who said law enforcement officials violated the constitutional separation of powers between legislative and executive branches.

President George W. Bush sealed the seized records for 45 days to allow time for the two branches to work out a deal.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Kenen, Joanne Allen and Vicki Allen)

© 2006 Reuters