House GOP likely to let Jefferson sit on Homeland Security Panel

After tentative discussions about offering a privileged resolution that would have prevented Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from assuming a spot on the Homeland Security Committee, House Republicans are now leaning against the idea, according to GOP aides.

The House Democratic Caucus was scheduled to approve the latest slate of committee assignments, including Jefferson’s, last night. The assignments then move to the floor for what is traditionally a vote by unanimous consent. As of press time yesterday, that vote was slated for last night but could slip to today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stripped Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee last year, but decided to give him a slot on the Homeland Security panel. Her announcement, which came just before members left for the Presidents Day recess, prompted Republicans to charge angrily that the appointment could pose a security risk.

The FBI found $90,000 in cash in Jefferson’s freezer when they raided his home last year, prompting an investigation into whether he accepted bribes related to a telecommunications deal in Africa. Although the investigation is ongoing and the congressman has not been indicted, the ethics cloud hanging over him has caused headaches for Pelosi, who has promised to run the most ethical Congress in history.

But some Republicans have made a tactical case against the privileged resolution. In particular, they say, letting Jefferson take his slot on the Homeland Security Committee will provide an ongoing and embarrassing target for the GOP. This camp also points out that a public attempt to deny him the spot could turn the House floor into a political thumping ground and incite retribution from Democrats.

Rep. Pete King (N.Y.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security panel told the Associated Press before recess that Jefferson’s appointment sends a terrible message.

“They couldn’t trust him to write tax policy, so why should he be given access to our nation’s top secrets or making policy for national defense?” he asked.

In anticipation of the Democratic Caucus vote this week, the House Republican Conference released a stinging comparison of Democratic rhetoric to reality, juxtaposing Pelosi’s pledge to run the most ethical Congress in history with her decision to appoint Jefferson to the Homeland Security panel. The release ends with a quote from Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).

“You gotta wonder where Jefferson’s gonna store all those homeland security secrets,” McHenry says.

But rhetoric aside, members rarely oppose committee assignments on the floor. GOP and Democratic steering committees usually determine most committee assignments.

Fred Beuttler, deputy House historian, said that this practice precedes World War I. A rules change in April 1911, prompted by an internal schism within the GOP, changed the traditional practice allowing the Speaker to appoint members’ committee assignments. That effectively meant that the Speaker lost his power to choose members’ committee assignments without input from the conference.

Later on Jan. 11, 1912, Rep. George Norris (R-Neb.) objected to the Democratic majority leader’s slate of candidates to fill seats on the Rules Committee. Norris wanted to fill them with more progressive Republicans, but his substitute bill was defeated.