Again last night, the Baltimore Democrat was all over the network news, voicing liberal outrage over an emerging plan by the Clinton administration and Senate Democrats to replace the Btu tax on energy passed by the House.
With the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson looking on silently, Mr. Mfume stood before a battery of television cameras and dozens of reporters to announce that the Congressional Black Caucus would not meet today with President Clinton, as expected. The president had sought the meeting after Mr. Mfume, other members of the Black Caucus and civil rights leaders had attacked him for abandoning the nomination of Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights.
The Black Caucus' decision to snub Mr. Clinton is politically risky, because it puts the most loyal Democrats in Congress in the position of undermining their president. But Mr. Mfume said the caucus would oppose efforts to cut programs that enjoy strong support among liberals, including mandatory spending programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, and the earned-income tax credit, all of which face cuts in the Senate.
The caucus' refusal to meet with the president represents the nadir of its relationship with the Clinton administration.
"It has been building to a kind of crescendo," Mr. Mfume says, ticking off in an interview Mr. Clinton's reversal of his position on allowing Haitian refugees into the country, the "collapse" of his fight to save the stimulus package in the Senate in April and, last, the Guinier nomination.
"I don't know if the president understands the depth and gravity" of the situation, he added.
He sought to justify the refusal to meet with Mr. Clinton on the grounds that the Black Caucus has not finished a review of recent events, and he said that a meeting could come next week, rejecting the suggestion that, perhaps, the president would no longer be interested in a meeting after being snubbed this week.
And he warned that the Black Caucus would try to exercise its political muscle in the House -- it has 37 Democratic votes and a lone Republican -- to advance its agenda. Saying there is "a need to change priorities," Mr. Mfume said, "There is a critical juxtaposition created by the notion that somehow we are going to have Russian aid in June while we have killed urban aid in April."
While Ms. Guinier's name did not come up at yesterday's news conference, it was the demise of her nomination that propelled Mr. Mfume into the national media spotlight last week, suddenly making him the most visible Marylander in the House.
Picking his shots
But the leader of the Black Caucus had already become become a key player on Capitol Hill by skillfully picking his shots.
"I think Lani Guinier is where we turned the corner," said his harried press secretary, Brian Morton, of his boss' new-found celebrity. "Suddenly the world is beating a path to his door. . . . The BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.] is calling to say, 'We think he's marvelous.' "
A day after Mr. Clinton announced his decision to abandon the Guinier appointment, Mr. Mfume held a news conference that was carried live on CNN and made all the network news shows that evening. Over the weekend he appeared on a number of network interview shows, including NBC's "Meet the Press," and faced requests for dozens of interviews from publications ranging from Time to the Michigan City Indiana News Dispatch.
Mr. Mfume has a commanding television presence, smooth and articulate with a resonant voice honed as a Baltimore radio talk show host prior to his City Council days. "He's such a cool leader -- very strong, very firm, very diplomatic and so smooth," says Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the other Maryland member of the caucus.
While Mr. Mfume may be new to readers and viewers around the nation, he is well known to the administration. The president called him last Thursday to say he was wrestling with a decision on Ms. Guinier -- and then called back that evening, finding Mr. Mfume at a Baltimore television station, to inform him of his decision before it was announced.
The 7th District Democrat's new-found clout arises from his election last December as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at a time when the caucus, by virtue of its numbers, had suddenly gained the potential to be a real force on Capitol Hill.
Founded a quarter-century ago when the black members of Congress could be counted on one's fingers, the caucus grew from 26 to 40 members with last November's elections. The caucus includes 37 Democrats and one Republican in the House, plus non-voting District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, both Democrats.
Its House votes make the caucus a potentially powerful bloc that can determine the fate of important legislation. It has flexed its muscle twice this year, getting the attention of the House leadership and Mr. Clinton two months before Mr. Mfume got the attention of the country.
In April, Mr. Mfume startled the Democratic leadership when he announced the Black Caucus was joining in an unusual alliance with House Republicans to oppose a bill giving the president slightly increased power to veto individual items in budget bills. Fearing defeat, the House leadership pulled the bill off the floor at the last minute.
After considerable head-counting and arm-twisting a month later, the leadership won the day on the crucial procedural vote, though by a slim 212-208 majority. While Mr. Mfume reiterated Black Caucus opposition to the bill in the debate that preceded the vote, 14 caucus members sided with the House leadership, providing it the crucial votes.
A month later, Mr. Clinton's tax and budget bill faced defeat as Republicans lined up solidly against it and conservative Democrats threatened to oppose it. Conservative Democrats were demanding an amendment to "cap" or limit spending on Medicare, Medicaid and welfare -- while liberal Democrats were threatening to oppose the bill if it included the caps.
Mr. Mfume, representing important votes, was in the middle of what he described as a "very, very intense" series of negotiations over several days that led to an agreement. He proved, according to participants in the final meeting that led to a compromise, to be a skilled negotiator.
Rep. Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota, one of the conservative Democrats involved in the final round of talks, described Mr. Mfume as a key player in working out a compromise.
Speaking of Mr. Mfume, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said: "He's not a haranguer or screamer. That's not his style. But he's determined and effective in the sense that he communicates that determination in a way that people understand he is serious."