Congressional Black Caucus hopes to gain influence with numbers, unity

May 01, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Twenty-two years ago, the fledgling Congressional Black Caucus, unable to get the attention of the White House, announced that it would boycott President Richard M. Nixon's State of the Union address.

The gambit worked, getting the dozen-member group a substantial measure of publicity and, later, a meeting with the president.

Four weeks ago, the caucus, grown 40-strong and headed by Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, tried a different sort of boycott, a parliamentary move that stalled for nearly a month House consideration of a bill favored by the Clinton administration and the House Democratic leadership. That brought the caucus attention and promises of greater inclusion in policy-making councils.

But when the chips were down and the Democratic leadership turned up the pressure, the black caucus split on the crucial vote, thereby losing the leverage it would have had as a bloc and raising questions about whether the organization has yet come of age as an influential force on Capitol Hill.

November's election swelled black caucus membership from 26 to 40, including 38 who vote on the House floor. (The District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois are the two other members.)

Mr. Mfume said in December: "This gives us a tremendous leverage of power. When you consider that most major pieces of legislation are carried by 20 or so votes, we are talking about a potentially solid bloc of 38 votes in the House."

An opportunity for the caucus to make its point arose unexpectedly early last month on a bill to strengthen slightly the president's anemic power to veto individual items in appropriations bills. Republicans were already solidly opposed, claiming that the bill did not go far enough.

When the House was asked to vote on the parliamentary ground rule under which the bill was to be considered, Mr. Mfume saw his chance. He announced the black caucus opposition to the rule and to the bill itself.

The House leadership counted votes and decided it did not have enough. So, it pulled the bill from the floor. Last Wednesday, after exerting what Mr. Mfume called "a lot of pressure," the leadership brought the bill up again.

This time the leadership rule prevailed, 212-208, but only after House Speaker Thomas S. Foley went onto the floor for what he called "sweet persuasion" at the last minute.

Although Mr. Mfume reiterated black caucus opposition before the vote, 14 of the caucus members sided with the leadership.

One caucus member said later that still more were prepared to support the House leadership if their votes were needed.

Mr. Mfume said yesterday that he knew a month ago that 28 members of the black caucus opposed the House leadership and that 10 supported it. Of the 28, four switched to the leadership position on the rule, and two did not vote because they were out of town.

Leadership pressure "can be quite punitive at times," Mr. Mfume said, adding that he did not know what specific cajoling, promises or threats were used in this case.

A day later, the bill was passed by a substantial margin, 258-157. Ten members of the black caucus who had voted with the leadership on the rule switched and voted against the bill itself.

At the same time, the GOP ranks split, with almost half the Republicans supporting the bill.

Mr. Mfume says the black caucus opposed the bill for two reasons. It ceded too much power to the executive branch, he said, and "there was a great deal of discontent" in the black caucus because there seemed to be a business-as-usual

attitude toward the caucus in the House.

The Baltimore Democrat does not view this week's vote as a setback. He says the organization "held at bay" the Clinton administration and the House leadership for four weeks and "carved out a new partnership on policy with the leadership of the House and the president."

He points out that the leadership of the caucus has scheduled a meeting next week with Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, on foreign policy issues, a prelude to a meeting with the president that is expected to occur the following week.

That the black caucus did not vote as a monolith surprised few members of Congress. As the group has grown, it has become more diverse. Once made up exclusively of urban representatives, the organization's membership now crosses generational lines and includes suburban and rural legislators.

Maryland's other black caucus member, freshman Albert R. Wynn, represents a suburban district made up of Prince George's County and part of Montgomery County. Mr. Wynn did not follow Mr. Mfume's lead, voting with the House leadership on the rule and the bill itself.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, a member of the House leadership, says, "The black caucus will have more influence when it is united."

He pointed out, for example, that it "was overwhelmingly in favor" of Mr. Clinton's jobs bill, which passed the House, only to die at the hands of a Senate filibuster.

Watch the organization, says a black caucus member, when the issues of aid to Russia and a new jobs bill are considered.

He predicts that the black caucus will be unified in insisting on a substantial jobs bill before it will support aid to Russia.

If nothing else, the dispute over the veto bill assures that the House leadership won't take the black caucus for granted again.

"The leadership assumed that the black caucus supported the rule," says Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Baltimore.

"They can't assume that minority members are automatically going to support the Democratic leadership."

Asked whether the black caucus' marriage of convenience with the GOP will be repeated regularly, Mr. Mfume said: "I hope not. "As a good Democrat, I don't like to give credit to the other side."

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