House Democrats voted on Thursday to remove Rep. William Jefferson from a powerful committee while federal investigators weigh possible bribery charges against the Louisiana Democrat.

Jefferson will not be forced off the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee unless the entire House of Representatives votes to do so.

The secret vote demonstrated Democrats’ determination to distance themselves from the New Orleans lawmaker at a time when they hope to capitalize on Republican corruption scandals to win control of Congress in November’s elections.

“Passing judgment on your peers is very, very difficult, but it is necessary,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “I told all my colleagues — anybody with $90,000 in the freezer, you have a problem at that point.”

The FBI has said it videotaped Jefferson accepting a bribe and found $90,000 in his freezer while investigating whether he took bribes to promote Internet technology in West Africa.

A former Jefferson aide and a Kentucky businessman have pleaded guilty to bribery charges as part of the investigation.

Jefferson, who has not been charged, has denied wrongdoing and refused to step down from the Ways and Means Committee, which he says is a vital post to help constituents in his district.

“Unfortunately, Minority Leader Pelosi wants so badly to win leadership in the House that she has persuaded the caucus to sacrifice my constituents — who, after (Hurricane) Katrina, need my leadership on my committee more than ever,” Jefferson said in a statement released after the vote.

Jefferson said he had offered to step down if a fellow Louisiana Democrat took his place on the committee, but Pelosi declined his offer.

The eight-term congressman has found support among fellow black lawmakers, who say he should not be punished if he has not been indicted. They point out there is no rule to strip lawmakers of their committee assignments simply because they are attracting negative attention.

“We don’t know what the rule is,” said North Carolina Rep. Mel Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Our concern is that the rule is really political expediency.”

Jefferson’s refusal to step down places Democrats in an awkward spot, as they must now pass a similar resolution on the floor of the House and hope Republicans do not try to embarrass them.

One element of the investigation has temporarily united Democrats and Republicans in the usually partisan House.

The FBI searched Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office last month, touching off a squabble between the Bush administration and congressional leaders, who said the raid violated constitutional protections designed to shield lawmakers from executive-branch harassment.

Bush ordered materials seized in the raid to be sealed while both sides sort out the issue. A court hearing on the raid is scheduled for Friday.

© Reuters 2006