WASHINGTON — In a clash highlighting tensions between Democratic leaders and one of their party's most important constituencies, House Democrats on Thursday backed a move to oust scandal-scarred Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) from a powerful committee post, despite opposition from the Congressional Black Caucus.
On a 99-58 vote, the House Democratic Caucus endorsed a proposal by their leader, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, that would remove Jefferson temporarily from the Ways and Means Committee because of an FBI investigation of bribery allegations against him.
Jefferson, who is African American, has resisted pressure from colleagues to step aside voluntarily. But after making his case to the closed-door meeting of House Democrats, he left open the possibility that he may give up his committee seat rather than fight the matter on the House floor, where it would have to be ratified to take effect. The timing of that floor debate is uncertain.
Members of the black caucus who have supported Jefferson argued it would be unprecedented to force him off the committee before any criminal charges had been filed against him.
Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), head of the black caucus, warned that Pelosi's push for Jefferson's removal might cause black voters to conclude that "a different standard ... based on race" was being applied.
The controversy pits Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders against the black caucus at a time when the clout its members exert within their districts is especially important.
Turnout by black voters is considered crucial to Democratic hopes of winning control of the House in November's elections. The black lawmakers will be counted on to help spur that turnout, as well as to stymie efforts by Republicans to make political inroads among African Americans.
If Democrats do take charge of the House, African Americans stand to gain a large share of power: Five black lawmakers are in line to become chairmen of some of the House's most important committees.
Still, Pelosi took the risk of alienating the black caucus in service of another political goal: her party's efforts to promote the election-year argument that Republicans have fostered a "culture of corruption" in Washington.
"Our House Democratic Caucus is determined to uphold a high ethical standard," she said after Thursday's vote. "We said it, and now we are doing it."
Some Democrats have expressed concern that the dispute will undercut Pelosi's efforts to forge party cohesiveness in the House ahead of the 2006 elections. But she dismissed such worries.
"I'm very proud of the unity of my caucus," she told reporters Thursday. "We can withstand debate; it isn't stifled."
Jefferson has maintained his innocence, but a business associate recently pleaded guilty to bribing him in hopes of winning a telecommunications contract with Nigeria. A former Jefferson aide also has pleaded guilty in the case.
The investigation gained widespread national attention when a recent court filing revealed that last year, the FBI videotaped a transaction that showed Jefferson accepting $100,000 in bribe money, according to federal agents. The filing said $90,000 of that money was found a few days later wrapped in aluminum foil in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home.
Following news stories about the cash, Pelosi called for Jefferson to leave the Ways and Means Committee until the case was resolved.
Some of the 43 members of the black caucus -- all of whom are Democrats -- supported Pelosi. But as a group, the caucus decided to oppose her.
In its official stance, the caucus argued that lawmakers under investigation deserved the "presumption of innocence."
It also noted that Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) had not been asked to step down from the powerful Appropriations Committee, despite reports that he was under scrutiny for allegedly steering millions of dollars in federal funds to nonprofit organizations that he helped control.
Pelosi countered that so far, the case against Mollohan was not as serious or clear-cut as the one against Jefferson.
In an effort to reach out to black voters, Pelosi in recent days conducted interviews with several black news organizations to explain her position.
In Thursday's vote, some white Democrats joined in opposing the move against Jefferson. One of them, Rep. Steven R. Rothman of New Jersey, said he objected to applying an "arbitrary" standard in the absence of clear guidelines for determining when a lawmaker should lose a committee assignment.
Most Democrats on Capitol Hill are hoping the dispute over Jefferson fades quickly and does not pack a broader political punch.
"There needs to be an effort to reiterate to the black community that the Democratic Party values their support and is with them on their issues," said an aide to House Democratic leaders who requested anonymity because of the politically sensitive nature of the flap.
As part of an effort by President Bush to improve the standing of the GOP among black voters, Republicans are running African American candidates in three major statewide races this year -- for governor in Ohio and Pennsylvania and for senator in Maryland.
Although none of them is considered a front-runner, Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Democrats had reason to be concerned.
She cited a report on black voters in Maryland commissioned by the state's Democratic Party that concluded that Michael S. Steele, the GOP's Senate candidate, had "a clear ability to break through ... among African American voters."
Still, Republicans have a lot of ground to make up in the battle for black voters: An April poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that Bush's approval rating among blacks was just 16%.