House Suspends Jefferson From Powerful Committee

The House voted Friday to remove Rep. William Jefferson, who's mired in a federal bribery probe, from his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

The vote came after the Democratic Caucus voted Thursday night to suspend Jefferson. Democrats were unswayed by Jefferson's argument that the sanction was unfair and complaints from other black lawmakers that he is the victim of a double standard.

The full House approved the removal by unanimous consent.

Although the Democratic caucus had voted for a suspension, House rules do not provide for a temporary removal. However, Democrats said that Jefferson will be able to reclaim his seat on the committee if his legal problems are resolved.

Jefferson's spokeswoman, Melanie Roussel, had said he planned to take his fight to the House floor, but Jefferson did not speak before the vote.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pushed her colleagues to vote to suspend Jefferson -- mired in a federal bribery probe -- after he rebuffed her requests to step down voluntarily from the panel. She also rejected a last-minute offer from Jefferson to step down on the condition that he be replaced by another Louisiana lawmaker.

"It's very sad. But our House Democratic Caucus is determined to uphold a high ethical standard. We said it, and now we are doing it," Pelosi said after the vote. "This isn't about proof in a court of law. It's about an ethical standard ... what is acceptable public behavior for a public servant."

"Passing judgment on your peers is very, very difficult. But it's necessary."

But after the vote, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, said the suspension was based on "political expediency" rather than House rules, warning that it "could have consequences" for Democrats among black voters.

"We believe our constituents will import their own interpretation into this, and a number of them will import that there's a different standard in our caucus based on race," Watt said, though he added, "None of us are saying that. I'm not saying that."

Jefferson addressed his fellow Democrats near the beginning of Thursday's caucus meeting, which stretched more than three hours. He said he told them his removal from the committee would be unprecedented and unfair because the caucus' disciplinary rules do not provide for suspension of a member who has not been indicted.

"I simply asked the members of the caucus to put themselves in my shoes, to imagine themselves standing where I was standing and to ask whether it would be deemed by them to be fair, " the New Orleans lawmaker told reporters.

"It is not right for the people I represent. ... It would deprive my folks of a chance to have their voices continue to be heard and their problems continue to be addressed."

But the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, said that under the rules, the Democrats' steering committee -- which recommended Jefferson's suspension last week -- has the authority to initiate changes in the membership of committees.

The motion to suspend Jefferson, taken by secret ballot behind closed doors, passed by a vote of 99 to 58. However, it failed to capture a majority among the 201 Democrats in the House because at least 44 of them did not vote.

The caucus decision was announced by Clyburn, who is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He said lawmakers who did not vote were likely caught up in debate on the floor or in other committee meetings.

Clyburn described the tone of the debate as "very, very civil."

"There was no anger," he said. "Nobody relishes this."

After addressing his colleagues, Jefferson left while they debated. He later briefly returned to the room, shortly before the decision was announced, then brushed by the assembled reporters without comment.

The investigation

Jefferson is the subject of a criminal probe into allegations he accepted bribes in return for using his office to facilitate business ventures in Africa. In court documents, prosecutors said $90,000 in cash was found in the freezer of his Washington house when it was searched last summer. (The case against Jefferson)

He has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime. However, a Kentucky businessman and a former Jefferson staffer have both pleaded guilty to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

The allegations against Jefferson present a wrinkle for House Democrats, who, as part of their mid-term election strategy, have been criticizing what they contend are ethical lapses by Republicans. Last month, just days after his Capitol Hill office was searched by the FBI, Pelosi asked Jefferson to step aside from Ways and Means, a powerful committee that oversees tax legislation.

A double standard?

Some CBC members charged Pelosi was applying a double standard in seeking the suspension of Jefferson, who is black, while allowing a white Democrat also under investigation, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, to keep his seat on the equally powerful Appropriations Committee.

Mollohan, whose personal finances are being investigated after a complaint filed by a conservative group, did step down voluntarily from his assignment on the House Ethics Committee, pending resolution of the probe.

But Pelosi said Thursday evening that there was a "big difference" between the two cases, given the two guilty pleas in the Jefferson case and "very incriminating allegations."

"I told all of my colleagues, anybody with $90,000 in your freezer, you have a problem with this caucus," she said.

On Wednesday, Jefferson sent a letter to Pelosi offering to step down from the committee on two conditions -- that she require any other Democratic lawmaker under investigation by the Justice Department to do the same and that she replace him with Rep. Charles Melancon, who represents an adjacent Louisiana district, in order to protect the interests of his constituents.

According to Jefferson, Pelosi rejected the offer shortly before Thursday's caucus meeting.

Jefferson, 59, is serving his eighth term representing Louisiana's 2nd District, a majority black, solidly Democratic district that takes in much of the city of New Orleans, along with some suburban areas. When he was elected in 1990, Jefferson became the first black congressman from the Pelican State since Reconstruction.

The FBI's search of his office on May 20 set off a tempest between the Justice Department and angry House leaders from both parties, who contend it was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

President Bush later ordered the materials to be held by the solicitor general's office for 45 days, giving the Justice Department and the House time to try to resolve the impasse.

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