House Democratic leaders are determined to sanction Rep. William Jefferson, scandal-scarred but unindicted, despite a blunt reminder from the Congressional Black Caucus that he is entitled to a "presumption of innocence."
"It's about to blow up in their face," predicted Rep. Melvin Watt, chairman of the CBC.
The North Carolina Democrat added Thursday night that black voters might wonder why a "black member of Congress" would be stripped of his committee post with neither rule nor precedent to justify it.
The reaction heightened a controversy that has flared at the outset of a national election campaign in which Democrats accuse Republicans of fostering a "culture of corruption."
The controversy stems from a bribery investigation that already has resulted in two convictions. The FBI claims he accepted $100,000 in cash and that its agents later found $90,000 of it wrapped and stashed in a freezer in his home.
The FBI carried out a weekend search of Jefferson's congressional office last month, triggering an outpouring of criticism from congressional leaders claiming agents had encroached on Congress' constitutional powers.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi renewed her call Thursday for Jefferson to give up his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee until his legal situation is clarified.
Her office said she would have no response to the CBC's statement. But an aide, Jennifer Crider, said any suggestion that race was a factor was "absolutely untrue."
"This is about upholding the highest ethical standard for every member of the Democratic caucus," she said.
With Jefferson refusing to step aside, the party leadership took the first formal steps to enforce its will.
Party leaders responsible for committee assignments voted for his suspension "until such time as a further recommendation to restore him to the committee is made."
Arrangements had already been made to convene the full rank-and-file to ratify the action. But Watt swiftly invoked a rule providing for a five-day delay, and the decision was postponed until next week.
The full House would have to vote before Jefferson could be forced to give up his seat, even temporarily. Several Democrats said they hoped the Louisiana lawmaker would relent before it came to that, particularly on an issue so delicate for some members of the black caucus.
The statement that chastised the leadership was issued in the name of the entire black caucus, but several Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the group as divided on the issue.
It said that black lawmakers "perhaps have a unique appreciation of our nation's constitutional guarantee of the 'presumption of innocence."'
The statement added that the group opposes suggestions "that some have made to force Rep. Jefferson to resign from Congress or to remove him involuntarily from his position on the Ways and Means Committee in the absence of precedents that have been historically applied and will be consistently applied in the future."
In comments to reporters, Watt was more pointed.
Referring to black voters, he said, "You've got a whole base of people out there who believe that the Democratic Party takes them for granted already."
If action is taken only against someone who "is a black member of Congress, then our community will legitimately ask, 'What in the world are you doing?"'
Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, another member of the CBC, said, "The rule is you lose your leadership position or chairmanship" after indictment.
In a separate case recently, Pelosi prevailed on Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia to step aside as senior member of the ethics committee after questions were raised about some of his legislative actions. He remains a member of the Appropriations Committee, with broad authority over the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.
Jefferson has not been indicted in a case in which two other men have been found guilty.
Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, was sentenced to eight years in prison last month for conspiring to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official.
Vernon Jackson, 53, chief executive of iGate Inc., a Louisville-based telecommunications company, pleaded guilty May 3 to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson.