Friday, June 16, 2006
House Boots Jefferson From Committee
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: June 16, 2006
Filed at 12:43 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House stripped Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of his committee seat on Friday in an unprecedented action against a lawmaker ensnared in scandal, but not under indictment.
The move came on a voice vote, without debate, and capped an election-year effort by House Democrats to seize the political high ground on the issue of lawmaker ethics.
Jefferson had refused to step aside voluntarily from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee before the corruption probe was completed. The drive to remove him from the committee, led by the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, sparked protests by black lawmakers who said Jefferson was being singled out unfairly.
Jefferson had no immediate response to the vote. On Thursday night, he issued a statement criticizing Pelosi over the ''unprecedented and unfair nature of her request for me'' to step aside.
Jefferson, who has denied wrongdoing and has not been indicted, was on the House floor at the time of the action. He and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus had been talking in a tight circle.
It was not clear what was said, or whether fellow Democrats had urged him once again to act on his own and avoid the stigma of being voted off the committee.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of the Democratic caucus, said he had intended to seek the move on Monday, but that Jefferson and Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, chairman of the CBC, recommended he proceed immediately.
Under House rules, any lawmaker could have sought a roll call vote. None did, meaning that Democrats, black lawmakers in particular, were spared the discomfort of having to take sides in public.
Clyburn told reporters that most members of the CBC did not want a vote.
On Thursday night, Democrats voted 99-58 to strip Jefferson of his seat on the Ways and Means Committee, with jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare and more.
''This isn't about proof in a court of law. This is about an ethical standard,'' Pelosi told reporters afterward.
Jefferson has not been indicted and maintains his innocence, although two men have been convicted in the probe and the FBI says it found $90,000 in bribe money in a food freezer in the congressman's home.
In the wake of the vote by fellow Democrats, Jefferson had appeared to leave open the possibility he might step aside voluntarily, telling reporters, ''I don't want to speculate.''
He also disclosed he had offered on Wednesday to step aside on the condition that the caucus establish a rule covering cases like his and that his seat on the committee go temporarily to a fellow Louisiana Democrat, Rep. Charles Melancon.
''Ms. Pelosi politely declined my offer,'' he said in a written statement. Pelosi's office confirmed the exchange.
The three-hour closed door meeting marked the culmination of a drive by Pelosi to take action.
''I wish the White House would follow our lead on this,'' she added. Democrats have vowed to make ethics a cornerstone of their campaign for control of the House this fall and have repeatedly accused Republicans of presiding over a ''culture of corruption.''
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, is a member of the Democratic leadership as well as the black caucus, said the rank and file had confronted ''two competing interests -- the legal interest and the political interest.''
Earlier, Pelosi brushed aside criticism, telling reporters at a news conference she had been ''more than fair.''
The FBI claims that it videotaped the Louisiana Democrat last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents later found $90,000 of the funds stashed in a freezer in his home. A former aid to the congressman and a businessman who admitted paying bribes to the lawmaker have pleaded guilty in the probe.
The issue has left many lawmakers torn. Several black lawmakers had appealed privately to Jefferson, who is black, to step aside from the committee voluntarily.
The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, said after the Democrats' vote that by taking the action they did, fellow Democrats chose ''political expedien