Congressional Black Caucus says it will welcome new black Republicans

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) said this week it will welcome a pair of newly elected black Republicans if they wish to join.

“Membership in the Congressional Black Caucus has never been restricted to Democrats,” the group said in an unattributed e-mail to its members. “Should either of the two African-American Republicans recently elected to the House of Representatives request membership in the Congressional Black Caucus they will be welcomed.”

The decision was reached after a unanimous vote by the CBC’s executive committee, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a member of that panel.

The CBC, Cleaver said in an interview Tuesday, “doesn’t want to come across as exclusionary.”

The announcement breaks the CBC’s silence on the possibility that GOP Reps.-elect Allen West (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) be allowed to join the overwhelmingly Democratic group. West has said he’ll seek membership, while Scott reportedly hasn’t decided.

The CBC’s message also seems to run counter to statements made last month by CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who told The Economist that, while the group is technically bipartisan, it also “has an agenda.” 

“Our agenda is about lifting people out of poverty, providing middle-class tax cuts, supporting climate-change legislation,” she said. “Do [incoming black Republicans] embrace this agenda?”

On at least one of those items — the Democrats’ climate change bill — both West and Scott are vocally opposed. Both have also been critical of the Democrats’ new healthcare reform law and the party’s plan to allow tax cuts for wealthy Americans to expire.

Indeed, West has said he wants to join the CBC in order to bring some ideological diversity to the Democratic group.

“I plan on joining — I’m not gonna ask for permission or whatever; I’m gonna find out when they meet and I will be a member of the Congressional Black Caucus,” West told WOR radio after his victory last week. “I meet all of the criteria, and it’s so important that we break down this monolithic voice that continues to talk about victimization and dependency in the black community. 

“We’ve got to turn this thing around, and I think it’s time for some different voices to be in that body politic.”

Including West and Scott, just five black Republicans have been elected to the House since the CBC was founded in 1969. Del. Melvin Evans (Virgin Islands) and Rep. Gary Franks (Conn.) both joined the group, but Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), who retired in 2003, famously declined to do so.

Elroy Sailor, Watts’s deputy chief of staff for most of the Oklahoman’s House tenure, said Watts’s decision didn’t make him a less effective champion of legislation promoting traditional African-American causes, like alleviating poverty. 

“The question is not, ‘Why didn’t he join?’” Sailor said in a phone interview. “The question is, ‘What were they able to do?’ ”

Sailor promoted the idea of West and Scott forming their own caucus of black conservatives, where they’d be more effective, he said, than simply joining the CBC as two Republicans in a sea of Democrats. 

“Two,” he said, “is a caucus.”

The New York Times has reported that Scott hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll join the CBC.

Neither West’s nor Scott’s office responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

The CBC is currently made up of 41 House members and outgoing Sen. Roland Burris (Ill.) — all Democrats. Two of the group’s founders — Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) — are still active members of the House.

While the CBC has been open to accepting Republicans, it’s been less inclusive of other groups. In 2007, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat representing the predominantly black district around Memphis, Tenn., was denied a bid to join the group because he’s white.

A similar scenario played out in 1975, when Rep. Pete Stark (D), who represents a largely black district around Oakland, Calif., was likewise denied CBC membership. 

“The caucus symbolizes black political development in this country,” Rangel, then CBC chairman, explained at the time. “We feel that maintaining this symbolism is critical at this juncture in our development.”

This post was updated at 7:23 p.m.