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CBC Hopes Rice Will Follow Path Set by Powell

The Congressional Black Caucus will for the first time meet privately with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this afternoon, a session some in the group hope will lead to a relationship with a White House insider similar to the one enjoyed during the tenure of Rice’s predecessor.

The 43-member CBC will sit down with Rice, who took over Colin Powell’s post in January, to talk about foreign policy matters including the Iraq war, treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, United Nations reform legislation, African debt relief and stability in developing nations such as Haiti. Rice solicited the meeting with the CBC.

“I think it’s a good sign that she’s trying to continue to listen to the voices of the people of the Congressional Black Caucus,” said CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.). “We certainly have an international relations part of our agenda, which we will remind her of.”

CBC sources said while Rice has reached out, Members will still press her hard to make changes in administration policies. Those sources insist that to continue the relationship forged under Powell she must not only listen to CBC concerns, but act on them as well.

“I think she wants to stay engaged and wants to be engaged,” said a senior adviser to a CBC member. “The question and the challenge for our members is how it is we can measure success as to how this relationship is progressing and whether this is a mutual benefit.”

The CBC formed a unique link for Democratic and minority Members with the White House during Powell’s service as secretary of State. That alliance, Members and sources said, gave the CBC some influence in a Republican administration over key policies related to Africa and nations with large black populations.

Watt said Rice knows the CBC’s agenda and has “been a friend” of the Congressional Black Caucus in much the same way that Powell was.

“It’s not surprising she would try to have an open line of communication,” Watt said. “I don’t know that I take it as a good sign or a bad sign. I hope it’s a sign that she values the opinions of CBC members in areas where we have particular areas of expertise.”

While the CBC held regular talks with Powell, and hopes to be on that path with Rice, it was and remains a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s policies on both international and domestic affairs.

“To the extent we can find common ground with this administration on issues important to the CBC agenda, then we’ll go on record,” Watt said. “We’re going to try to find common ground with them, but on issues where we can’t, we will state our position and fight for it.”

Powell was widely respected by CBC members and had a reputation for even-handedness and being receptive to their concerns. For instance, the CBC met and spoke regularly with Powell on issues such as political turmoil in Haiti and Liberia and genocide in Sudan.

Powell, however, came into his job with a readymade CBC rapport, having known then-CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for some time.

“He was receptive to these things,” said the aide to the CBC member of Powell. “It gave him the political cover because you had Members of Congress who weren’t going to let this slide by. He was willing to listen. Whenever Members would call, he’d call them back.”

While today’s meeting is the first individual session between Rice and the CBC, the secretary of State also participated when black Members met with Bush in late January. That meeting came on the same day Rice, then the national security adviser, won confirmation from the Senate to her new post.

“That was a signal from her that she wanted to be engaged with members of the Caucus,” said the CBC source.

The CBC has been trying to wield influence on U.S. foreign policy with other international officials as well. The group plans to meet today with the presidents of Namibia and Ghana, and earlier this year met with Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

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