WASHINGTON — As Democrats in the House of Representatives regroup after major losses in the midterm elections, the Congressional Black Caucus chose Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver on Wednesday to lead them through the new political terrain.
He'll become chairman of a group next year whose 42 members all survived the midterm elections, even as many of their more moderate and conservative colleagues are now packing up their offices and preparing to head back home.
After his unanimous approval, Cleaver told the group, "Because we now occupy the minority, the challenge we are faced with will be greater. . . . If we walk together, we will accomplish our aim."
He was elected one day after a House ethics panel found Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, one of the caucus' most prominent and formerly powerful members, guilty of 11 ethics violations.
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Another senior Democratic member of the black caucus, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, also faces ethics charges. The ethics committee is looking into whether she interceded with federal regulators on behalf of a bank with ties to family members.
But the direction of the House Democrats over the next two years will be where Cleaver will put his energy. He now leads the largest caucus in the House, a liberal stronghold that will bolster what appears to be the direction that House Democrats will likely pursue.
Earlier in the day, they re-elected California's Nancy Pelosi, currently speaker of the House, as their minority leader in the next Congress.
They did so despite concerns among many within their ranks that she was the wrong choice for a party that had just been rejected by voters. Forty-three Democrats, nearly a quarter of the caucus, opposed her.
The black caucus has been a strong supporter of Pelosi. But in the days leading up to the vote, it balked on supporting her and others in the leadership unless she addressed its concerns about Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
Currently the House majority whip, Clyburn is the highest-ranking African American in Congress. Traditionally, the Democrats would lose one leadership slot when it becomes the minority party in January. But the black caucus insisted that Clyburn remain in a position with some power, and Pelosi offered him a new leadership post.
Apart from the internal political maneuvering, Pelosi's re-election sends a signal that House Democrats will defend their beliefs, even if it means challenging the White House.
"You're hearing both survivors of (swing) districts and others say that we need to change our ways and we need to say 'no' to the White House more," Cleaver said. "We never said 'no' on anything."
At the same, the black caucus will be expected to play an important role in helping to increase the African American turnout in 2012, when President Barack Obama is expected to run for re-election, and Democrats will try to regain the House.
Compared with 2008, about 8 million fewer African Americans went to the polls this year, according to David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on issues affecting African Americans and other minorities.
Cleaver, a minister and former Kansas City mayor who isn't prone to political fireworks, said there will be times when the agendas of the black caucus and the president won't be in sync.
"We recognize the need to support the president, but there's also the feeling being expressed rather loudly that the White House will become concerned only about the survival of the president in 2012 and we will be out here blowing in the wind," he said. "We may be moving down two separate paths toward 2012."
Two of the new Republican freshmen are African American. At least one, Rep.-elect Allen West of Florida, has indicated that he might want to join the black caucus. Rep.-elect Tim Scott of South Carolina has said that he's leaning against joining.
Bositis said that Cleaver "is not going to be as confrontationally partisan as some former chairs of the CBC. There are plenty of members who are willing to be confrontational. But it most certainly will involve him speaking out on issues of importance to African Americans."
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