Reps. Pelosi, Hoyer split over Jesse Jackson Jr.'s silence during absence

The leading House Democrats on Wednesday found themselves on opposite sides of the escalating debate over whether Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) should be more open about his mysterious monthlong absence from Capitol Hill.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Jackson should disclose his condition only when he's ready, arguing that the timing should be dictated by nothing beyond “his healthcare needs.”

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But Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, said Jackson's constituents deserve to know why the nine-term Democrat has been on medical leave for more than a month.

“Congressman Jackson and his office and his family would be well-advised to advise the constituents of his condition,” Hoyer said at a press conference in the Capitol on job creation.

Jackson’s office has issued two statements since the Illinois lawmaker tiptoed out of public life on June 10, the first citing “exhaustion” and the second characterizing a “medical condition ... more serious than we thought and initially believed.” He last voted on June 8.

Jackson's disappearance — and the silence surrounding it — has launched a debate within the Democratic Party over members' responsibilities to the voters they serve. A pair of prominent Illinois Democrats — Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez — called this week for Jackson to be more candid about his absence. And Hoyer on Wednesday joined their chorus.

“People get sick, and when people get sick they miss work. Everybody in America understands that,” said Hoyer, who a day earlier had defended Jackson's reticence. “But I think the family would be well-advised to give his constituents as much information as is appropriate.”

Some Democrats on Wednesday pushed back hard against those who want Jackson to disclose his condition. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), characterized such calls as “frustrating and upsetting.”

“This is not about a congressman, this is about a human being who's sick,” Cleaver said. “Some of the people [who] are making comments about what ought to be happening, they may not, you know, have a full appreciation for, you know, the desire for privacy when it comes to a medical issue.”

Cleaver criticized those who have speculated that Jackson's absence might be related to an ongoing House ethics investigation, or allegations of an affair with a D.C.-based bikini model — or worse.

“I hear all these stories, and they [Jackson's family members] hear them as well, and everybody's just amazed,” Cleaver said. “These things are just coming out of nowhere.”

Weighing in Wednesday, Pelosi said she hasn't talked to Jackson about his absence, but suggested he's been silent about the condition because it hasn't yet been diagnosed.

“The time is right [to give more details] when Mr. Jackson — Congressman Jackson — has an evaluation of what the situation is,” Pelosi said during a press conference on healthcare reform in the Capitol. “Hopefully he will have the appropriate evaluation so he can share that information.

“He is a valuable member of Congress, but the timing is related, not to my curiosity or anybody else's, but to his healthcare needs,” Pelosi added. “Hopefully we will see him back here soon again, and the timing relates to his knowledge of his situation.”

Cleaver, meanwhile, cited a 1996 law — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), designed to ensure that medical treatments remain private matters between a patient and doctor — and wondered why lawmakers who supported that bill aren't applying it to Jackson.

“The HIPAA laws were designed so that people could experience medical treatment without public discussion. We all approved that,” Cleaver said. “That's what they want ... just, you know, some respect for a healing process that's private.”

Cleaver also expressed confidence that Jackson would return to Capitol Hill, saying “of course” the Illinois Democrat would be back.

“He's fine. He's an old football player,” Cleaver said. “He'll come back.”

This story was updated at 5:59 p.m.