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Jefferson Seat Sparks Battle

GOP Attacks Panel Assignment

Breaking with longstanding but unwritten rules of comity in the House, Republican leaders plan to object to a Democratic resolution to seat embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) on the Homeland Security Committee, arguing that Jefferson is ethically unsuited for the assignment.

Rarely, if ever, do the parties attempt to intervene on each other’s committee assignments or internal party business. Yet Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) told reporters Wednesday following the weekly Republican Conference meeting that they would object to the unanimous consent request usually granted to approve mundane House business such as committee assignments. Republicans argue that because Jefferson is under federal investigation, he should not be given access to national security information.

Democrats could offer the resolution on the floor as early as today to formally assign Jefferson to the panel, but since it is a privileged resolution Democrats can bring it to the floor at any time without notice and may opt to hold off until next week. The Democratic Steering Committee and the full Democratic Caucus already have approved the assignment without opposition. Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said Wednesday he had no objection to the decision.

“Not as far as I’m concerned … I have not heard any,” Thompson said, adding that no one has brought up the matter to him and that Jefferson “is a Member of Congress, who, like every other American, is innocent until proven guilty.”

Jefferson already has taken part in committee business and attended a Wednesday hearing on reforming the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which played a widely criticized role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated Jefferson’s New Orleans-based district.

At the hearing, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) made a unanimous consent request to allow Jefferson and three other Members who do not sit on the subcommittee to join the panel and question the witnesses. No one objected.

Jefferson was the only one of the four to show up and he took part in the questioning of FEMA Director David Paulison and other Homeland Security Department officials regarding reforms the DHS is making in response to last year’s FEMA overhaul legislation.

Furthermore, Jefferson is scheduled to travel with President Bush on Air Force One today to tour the Gulf Coast along with other lawmakers from the Katrina-affected area.

The GOP’s objection will force a roll call vote on Jefferson’s assignment designed to put Democrats on record supporting Jefferson, but that effort is not expected to change the outcome as it is likely to fall on party lines.

Blunt could not recall a time in his career when one party objected to the other’s committee assignments, but he said there was no doubt Republicans were going to draw attention to Jefferson. “I don’t think we ever seriously discussed not having a vote,” Blunt said.

In a statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the decision to seat Jefferson on Homeland Security conflicted with Democrats’ earlier decision to remove him from Ways and Means.

“The Democrats previously determined Congressman Jefferson is unfit to serve on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the nation’s finances and trade, so it is difficult to comprehend how they can approve of Congressman Jefferson’s fitness for a seat on the Homeland Security Committee, with access to America’s most sensitive and closely guarded intelligence information,” Boehner said. “House Democrats and their leaders should immediately reconsider this baffling and troubling decision.”

In his own statement Wednesday evening, Jefferson said the GOP’s tactics were simply “politics as usual” and that his district “desperately needs a voice” on the Homeland panel.

The Louisiana lawmaker had served on the exclusive Ways and Means committee until June, when the House removed him from that post after the Democratic Caucus voted 99-58 to strip him of his assignment in light of the ongoing investigation.

Although he has not been indicted, at the time of the Caucus’ decision in June, the FBI asserted it had videotaped Jefferson allegedly accepting $100,000 in marked bills from an informant last year. A subsequent search of the lawmaker’s home reportedly turned up $90,000 of the marked cash in Jefferson’s freezer.

Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing, but indictments have been handed down in the case that have implicated him in a business scheme to benefit a Kentucky-based technology company that also involved officials in African nations.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday morning that he was unaware of Blunt’s comments, but suggested that GOP leaders should consider applying the suggestion equally to those members of their delegation who currently are under investigation by the Justice Department.

“Is [Blunt] going to ask them to step aside?” Hoyer asked.

Democrats point to what they see as Republican hypocrisy on the issue because while they are taking the partisan step to oppose Jefferson’s assignment, they have chosen to seat Members such as Appropriations Committee ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who also is under investigation by the FBI and has paid nearly $1 million in legal bills in the past year.

A spokesman for Boehner declined to comment on Lewis, deferring to Boehner’s statement. However, a GOP leadership aide said the situations were not comparable. “There’s a big difference,” the aide said. “There have been no indictments or convictions surrounding the allegations against Congressman Lewis. This is not the case with Mr. Jefferson. He was caught on FBI video surveillance accepting a $100,000 bribe, found with $90,000 of it in his freezer, and the authorities have made several convictions that directly implicate him in a crime.”

House Democrats approved Jefferson’s new committee assignment by voice vote at their weekly Caucus meeting Tuesday, during which no objections were raised, Hoyer said.

Jefferson, who also serves on the Small Business Committee, won his re-election bid in December, defeating state Rep. Karen Carter (D) by a resounding 57 percent to 43 percent in a runoff election in the 2nd district.

Hoyer acknowledged that the victory played a significant role in handing Jefferson an additional committee assignment: “He needs to be able to serve on their behalf,” Hoyer said.

“Mr. Jefferson was taken off Ways and Means … in recognition of the issues he is confronting,” Hoyer added, noting that Jefferson’s seat could be returned to him pending the outcome of the corruption probe.

Ways and Means has jurisdiction over international trade issues, and one of the allegations against Jefferson is that he may have taken bribes to help win a Nigerian telecommunications contract for an American company.

House Democratic leaders had announced in December that Jefferson would remain on “suspension” from the Ways and Means panel in the 110th Congress.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) criticized the suggestion that the House would be asked to confirm Jefferson’s new assignment, stating: “I consider it ridiculous.”

Hastings, a member of the Intelligence Committee, also decried suggestions that Jefferson would receive greater access to classified information as a member of the Homeland Security panel, calling such statements untrue.

Paul Singer contributed to this report.

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