Racism charged in effort to strip Jefferson of committee seat

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi juggled competing political goals on Friday, seeking to drain racial tension from her attempt to strip embattled Rep. William Jefferson of his committee seat.

Facing a showdown next week that he is likely to lose, Jefferson, D-La., signaled anew he will not step aside voluntarily, and some fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke out on his behalf.

“The Black Caucus takes exception when we become the exception to the rule. We want the same standards,” said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J. He noted that the Louisianan has denied wrongdoing in a federal bribery probe and has not been indicted.

At the same time, several officials said that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who is black, was the lawmaker who formally proposed at a closed-door meeting Thursday night that Jefferson be stripped of his committee assignment. Lewis, who first gained fame as a civil rights pioneer in the 1960s, declined to comment.

While Jefferson maintains his innocence, two men have been convicted in the investigation and the FBI claims it has videotaped evidence of him accepting bribe money. The two include a former aide to the congressman as well as a businessman who pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to the lawmaker.

The controversy has left some Democrats in an awkward position. Eager to emphasize their election-year theme of ridding the House of an alleged “culture of corruption,” they also appeared reluctant to risk offending blacks who are among the party’s most loyal supporters.

Democratic chairman Howard Dean declined to side with either Pelosi or Jefferson. “We are going to stay out of this one,” said a spokesman, Luis Miranda.

Rep. Ben Cardin, running in a senatorial primary in Maryland against Kweisi Mfume, the former head of the NAACP, also declined to comment. “I would want to talk to Bill first. I have not talked to Bill Jefferson,” he said.

Mfume also sidestepped the issue. “He’s going to sit this one out,” said a spokesman, Mark Clack.

The day’s events capped a 24-hour period in which the Democratic leadership took the first steps to strip Jefferson of his committee post and the CBC issued a statement noting he was entitled to a constitutional presumption of innocence.

Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman, said the Democratic leader gave interviews to several black media outlets, sessions that were scheduled after she first urged Jefferson more than two weeks ago to step aside on his own.

Daly said the California Democrat responded to one interviewer’s question by saying there was no double standard involved. “She made it very clear that she’s serious about maintaining high ethical standards for Republicans and Democrats and therefore she’s asked him to step aside,” said Daly.

In private conversations, according to one official, Pelosi has emphasized that she established standards for ethical behavior among Democrats when she became party leader more than three years ago, and has not deviated from them.

Jefferson’s allies counter that Democrats cannot point to either rules or precedents that require an unindicted lawmaker to give up a post.

Fresh details emerged about the Thursday night meeting in which senior Democrats took the first step to remove Jefferson from the House Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over trade, taxes, Medicare and Social Security.

Several officials said the vote was 33-7, and came after a relatively brief debate largely devoid of passion.

A meeting of the same group one night earlier was livelier, these officials said. They said Rep. Maxine Waters of California, in particular, had forcefully spoken out against the plan to discipline Jefferson. She declined to comment.

The officials who described the events did so on condition of anonymity, saying the meetings were private.

The Wednesday night session resulted in a decision to send a small delegation to Jefferson in one final attempt to persuade him to step aside on his own. Lewis as well as Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and John Tanner of Tennessee were appointed, since they are on the Ways and Means Committee. They got the same response Pelosi and others had received earlier.

© 2006 The Associated Press