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Democrats Cringe Over Waters Battle

Embattled Rep. Maxine Waters has always been an agitator who is more than willing to pick a fight when she thinks she’s right.

And that’s what makes her such a potential liability for Democrats.

The California Democrat’s long history of taking on her party establishment has convinced leaders that she will follow through on her pledge to fight ethics charges, whatever the cost to the party in November.

Even more than Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — who, like Waters, faces a potential ethics trial this fall on unrelated charges — the combative Waters is viewed as someone who pursues her own agenda and refuses to automatically fall in line with party doctrine. So it was of little surprise to many Democrats when Waters vowed Monday to publicly fight yet-to-be-unveiled ethics charges stemming from a probe of her role in securing $12 million in federal bailout funds in 2009 for OneUnited Bank, a company with close ties to her husband.

“Maxine Waters isn’t afraid to take on anybody or any entity,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

The fiery California liberal — who, according to several sources, is not particularly close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi despite their political and geographical similarities — has earned a reputation as a difficult person to deal with. In part, that comes from incidents such as a June 2009 shoving match with Appropriations Chairman David Obey on the House floor that grew out of Waters’ indignation at Obey’s refusal to approve a $1 million earmark for an employment center in Waters’ district that bears her name.

The unusual physical fracas with Obey was perhaps the starkest episode in a 20-year Congressional career that has been peppered with examples of Waters’ in-your-face political style.

In March 2007, Waters defied Pelosi when she stated publicly that she would not participate in the Speaker’s effort to whip the entire Democratic Caucus in support of an Iraq War spending bill, despite being a senior member of the whip team. Waters was part of a group of liberals who founded the Out of Iraq Caucus.

In 1994, several of Waters’ fellow lawmakers called for the Sergeant-at-Arms to remove her from the floor when she refused to stop her tirade against New York Republican Rep. Peter King, whom she accused of being rude to a female White House aide during the House Banking Committee’s Whitewater hearings.

Democratic Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.) eventually came to the floor to referee the matter and barred Waters from the floor for the rest of the day, according to a report in the New York Times.

Two years earlier, when Waters was a freshman Member and her South-Central Los Angeles district was recovering from bitter race riots, she crashed a meeting at the White House between President George H.W. Bush and Foley and other Congressional leaders, protesting that she never should have been left out in the first place.

Still, Waters has her defenders who tout her stubbornness as evidence of her devotion to causes such as empowering minority businesses, and they describe her as a fierce champion for the underdog.

Michael Grant, president of the National Bankers Association, described Waters, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, as the go-to person for minority business groups and lauded her “sense of urgency” and willingness to dedicate her staff.

“This woman has just got an extraordinary reputation for her fierce advocacy on behalf of minority businesses,” Grant said, adding, “She is a powerful, powerful champion and advocate to keeping the doors open for minority groups and the poor.”

Waters also has strong allegiances within the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) issued a statement Tuesday urging the public not to rush to judgment against Waters.

But many Democratic leaders have publicly distanced themselves from Waters since the House ethics committee announced Monday that she would face an ethics trial on an unspecified date after an investigative panel found substantial reason to believe she had violated House rules or other laws.

“She’s always been about one person, and that’s Maxine Waters … and everybody else can kind of get out of the way,” another Democratic leadership aide said. “I’m not sure if she really gives a damn about the party, the president or the Speaker. She just does her own thing. … Unfortunately, it’s to the detriment, right now, of the party.”

Pelosi described herself Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” as “totally out of the loop” on the ethics matter, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a Tuesday NPR interview that Waters and Rangel would have to decide whether to try to reach a settlement.

One Democratic strategist said the leaders’ approach was “not surprising.”

“They don’t want to be seen as somehow cooking the process in the ethics committee, and they don’t want to be seen as browbeating or dictating to Members that they should give up their rights or do one thing or another before the process plays out,” the strategist said.

To make matters worse for Democrats, Waters followed up her lengthy public statement Monday announcing that she intends to fight the charges with a demand that the ethics trial take place before the November elections.

“I feel strongly that further delay in the scheduling of the hearing violates the fundamental principles of due process, denies my constituents the opportunity to evaluate this case, and harms my ability to defend my integrity,” Waters wrote in a Wednesday letter to ethics Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.).

Waters also pressed for the release of detailed charges against her, known as a “statement of alleged violation.”

“In combination with the scheduling of the hearing, the release of the SAV will enable this process to take place in a timely manner and provide the transparency that the American public deserves,” Waters wrote. “I am confident that once the Subcommittee report is released and I am able to present my case, my constituents and all Americans will understand that I have not violated any House rules.”

In the meantime, the California lawmaker is prohibited from actually addressing the investigative subcommittee’s findings because of a nondisclosure agreement signed at the time she was shown a draft document outlining the charges against her.

According to a memorandum released by the ethics committee in July, both Rangel and his attorney were similarly required to sign a nondisclosure agreement at the time the investigative panel in that case turned over a draft of its allegations.

Rangel was unable to comment on the allegations until an ethics subcommittee released the report to the public.

“We’re fighting a ghost right now because we can’t comment on the SAV,” said a Waters aide, who asked not to be identified.

In her statement Monday, Waters denied that she violated House rules but focused her criticisms almost entirely on an Office of Congressional Ethics report released the same day.

The OCE, which reviews potential rules violations and refers inquiries to the ethics committee, reviewed Waters’ relationship with the NBA and OneUnited, and it recommended the House ethics panel investigate after it determined she may have violated House rules when she arranged a meeting between the banking association and the Treasury Department.

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