WASHINGTON -- In the wake of a virulently anti-Semitic speech by a Nation of Islam official, African-American members of Congress are moving to put distance between themselves and a "covenant" forged with the militant black Muslim group by Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume last fall.
At the same time, Jewish lawmakers are expressing dismay that the Baltimore Democrat and caucus chairman had not more forcefully and quickly disavowed the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis T. Farrakhan.
"I'd like anybody involved in that kind of covenant to say, 'This has gone too far. We cannot work with people who talk like this -- or people who won't distance themselves from people who talk like this,' " said Rep. Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who is Jewish.
Echoing the sentiments of several African-American members, clearly trying to disassociate themselves from the hate-filled speech, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis said the pact formed with the Nation of Islam "was never an official position of the Congressional Black Caucus. I don't think a great majority of the caucus ever saw ourselves engaged in any type of partnership or covenant with the Nation of Islam."
For Mr. Mfume, whose ambitions in the House go beyond his Black Caucus chairmanship, the fallout from his handling of the controversy could be damaging.
Yesterday, Mr. Mfume said he was unaware of any consternation among caucus members or Jewish lawmakers over his alliance with the Nation of Islam and his reluctance to cut ties with Mr. Farrakhan. He has denounced the anti-Semitic remarks made Nov. 29 by a Farrakhan aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, at Kean College in Union, N.J., and said he thought Jewish leaders were satisfied with his response.
Mr. Mfume said he took full responsibility for trying to embrace the Nation of Islam last September and had no regrets, despite Mr. Muhammad's incendiary speech calling Jews "the blood suckers of the black nation" and urging black South Africans to "kill everything white" in their country.
"My motives were genuine and honest," Mr. Mfume said. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it."
The congressman said he spoke with Mr. Farrakhan by phone yesterday and was assured that early next week he would receive a response to a letter he wrote more than a week ago.
Mr. Farrakhan told him the response would be published in next week's edition of the Nation of Islam's official newspaper, the Final Call. But Mr. Farrakhan seemed to give a response in a speech Monday in which he accused Jews of "plotting" to divide the black community.
Mr. Mfume said he was still "cautiously optimistic" that the relationship could be repaired, but many in Congress were ready to condemn the Nation of Islam leader.
California Rep. Tom Lantos, who met with other Jewish members Wednesday, is preparing a House resolution condemning Mr. Farrakhan, according to one of the Democrat's aides.
And while some Jewish leaders, such as Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said they were still confident Mr. Mfume would eventually "do the right thing," several Jewish lawmakers pressed for more forceful action from the congressman.
"There is some concern among Jewish leaders that Kweisi's letter did not go far enough," said New York Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey, who attended a closed-door meeting led by Illinois Democrat Sidney R. Yates.
"He needs to come out and say, 'We can't work with somebody who espouses, or certainly tolerates, this kind of anti-Semitic, anti-white, racist rhetoric,' " said an aide to one Jewish Democrat at the meeting.
The aide said that Mr. Mfume, who has expressed an ambition to be speaker of the House one day, could be jeopardizing his rise in the House leadership by alienating liberal Jewish lawmakers.
Mr. Muhammad's Kean College speech came two months after Mr. Mfume, at the annual legislative weekend of the Black Caucus, said the caucus was prepared to enter a covenant with the Nation of Islam to work toward solving social problems within the black community.
"We never voted on any kind of covenant," said Black Caucus member Mel Reynolds, an Illinois Democrat who has requested a meeting with Mr. Farrakhan in Chicago. "But I must say Kweisi Mfume deserves credit for trying to reach out and build bridges. Unfortunately, those in the Nation of Islam don't believe in building bridges."
Some House members privately suggested that it was "naive" to think Mr. Farrakhan could be brought into the mainstream black community, given his history of anti-Semitic rhetoric. But Mr. Mfume, who said he's had good relations with Nation of Islam members, especially in Baltimore, said that he knew exactly what he was doing and that there was some risk to it.
"I was brought up to believe it's OK to reach out," he said. "If you fail doing that, it's all right. If you do not try at least once, that's not all right."