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For Jefferson, Only One Issue

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) wants to focus on recovery — not his own, but his city’s, though the two are not completely unrelated.

Dogged by an ongoing bribery investigation, kicked off the House Ways and Means Committee by his own party and now facing an attempt by Republicans to prevent him from taking a seat on the Homeland Security Committee, Jefferson would seem to be a man without a country, hanging in a kind of personal and legislative limbo.

But that is all Washington, D.C., and Jefferson’s focus since his re-election in a December runoff is all New Orleans.

“Everything we are doing now is all about recovery, there’s nothing else,” Jefferson said as he walked the Rayburn House Office Building hallways after a hearing last week.

With control of the House and Senate shifting to Democrats, the Democratic agenda suddenly has become the national agenda, and Members who toiled in relative obscurity are now playing leading roles in national debates.

But Jefferson is moving in the opposite direction, focusing almost exclusively on local issues related to recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Jefferson has introduced several pieces of legislation intended to speed recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, including a measure to forgive $50 million in federally funded disaster loans for New Orleans residents, and another to waive current requirements that recipients of federal homeowner relief payments must first pay off disaster loans they received from the Small Business Administration.

Last Wednesday, Jefferson spent several hours in Katrina-related hearings, including a Homeland Security subcommittee hearing where he was welcomed as a participant despite a Republican promise to challenge his membership on the committee. That could come to a vote on the House floor this week.

Wednesday morning, Jefferson questioned the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official on shortcomings in FEMA’s disaster assistance programs; in the afternoon he testified before a House Financial Services subcommittee, appealing for Congress to force insurers to provide larger payouts on hurricane-damaged homes.

His office also reflects his single-minded focus. His new chief of staff, Eugene Green, is a New Orleans business leader, having served on the local levee board and been the head of the New Orleans Regional Business Park, but has no Washington experience.

Edward Renwick, director of the Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans, said that by focusing on hurricane recovery, Jefferson “is just doing what he would be doing if he didn’t have the other problems hanging over his head.” Renwick said the recovery is the primary concern in his district, and “it is probably good politics from his standpoint.”

If Jefferson is a pariah among his colleagues, it is not evident as he travels Capitol Hill. At the Financial Services hearing he chatted with Rep. Bobby Jindal, the Republican from the neighboring district, and was invited by Financial Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to sit on the dais after his testimony and participate in questioning the next panel of witnesses. During the Homeland Security hearing, a staff member invited him outside to meet with a group of lobbyists, and a Capitol visitor embraced him in the hallway and wished him well.

“In my considered opinion, he’s going about his routine business as a Congressman,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “He’s certainly hard at work on the Katrina issue.”

“Jeff is Jeff,” Hastings continued. “He’s laughing and talking and doing everything a person does.”

One Democratic leadership aide said Jefferson was partying it up during a recent Mardi Gras bash at the Washington Hilton. “He was in very good spirits,” the aide said.

As for the way Jefferson is viewed by his colleagues, the aide said, “There are some people who view him as radioactive and some people that don’t.”

At the end of the previous session of Congress, “people were still getting on his bills,” the aide added.

But the cloud remains. Beyond the slings and arrows of the Republicans, there are small slights from unexpected corners. Last week, a group of Louisiana high school students who met with Jindal in a Rayburn corridor raised a question about whether Jefferson should be allowed to sit on the Homeland Security Committee. (Jindal said it was the Speaker’s decision.)

During a series of floor speeches in January by Democrats claiming they were duped by the administration into voting to support the Iraq War, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) enthusiastically introduced a parade of colleagues, including “the gentlewoman from Oakland, California (Ms. Lee), who has given so much leadership on this issue” and “the gentlewoman from California (Mrs. Tauscher), who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, who is the chair of the New Democrats, one of the hardest working members of the California delegation.” For Jefferson, Waters offered only this: “Madam Speaker, I yield to Mr. Bill Jefferson from Louisiana.”

On Thursday, Jefferson and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) traveled with President Bush to the Gulf Coast to review hurricane relief efforts, but Bush did not provide the usual pro forma thanks for their efforts in Washington. Instead, speaking to a New Orleans audience, Bush said, “I want to thank the lieutenant governor, the mayor, the head of the City Council, the parish presidents for joining me. I committed to stay involved in the rebuilding of — gosh, a United States Senator, excuse me, Senator — and the Congressman, I beg your pardon.”

Jefferson did join Bush and the rest of his traveling party at lunch and other events with New Orleans residents.

Meanwhile, the legal case drags on, reverberating far beyond Congress. In Nigeria last week, a Senate committee issued a report accusing Vice President Atiku Abubakar of misusing government funds for investments he made in a Nigerian telecommunications project at Jefferson’s behest.

The FBI asserted it had videotaped Jefferson allegedly accepting $100,000 in marked bills from an informant last year, which were allegedly meant to be used to pay off Abubakar. 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 a Kentucky businessman and a former Jefferson staffer already have pleaded guilty in the case.

But Jefferson shrugs it off. “My district gave me the wonderful privilege of having a chance to continue to represent them, and I am very grateful to them for that,” he said. “I don’t think I have to prove anything else to them. They had the benefit of a full campaign, and we won by 14, 15 points. And so I think what they want me to do now is simply to go to work for them, as I have been trying to do day in and day out here.”

Jefferson said he cannot worry about the on-going investigation of his finances. “I have to do my job. I say my prayers and I continue ahead, that’s what I do every day. … I’m just going to continue working and not get bogged down in everything, I can’t do anything else.”

Rachel Van Dongen contributed to this report.

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