Who Says Congressional Blacks Have Nowhere to Go?


Washington.--If it were a marriage, we'd call it rocky.

If it were a game, we'd call it hardball.

If it were a picnic site, we'd call it "Jurassic Park."

It's President Clinton's relations with black political leaders and it isn't pretty.

Outraged by the way Mr. Clinton dropped the ball in supporting Lani Guinier, his nominated civil rights chief, the 39-member Congressional Black Caucus showed its disgust by flatly rejecting an invitation from Mr. Clinton to talk about it afterward.

Civil rights groups, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Ms. Guinier used to work, also voiced outrage over Mr. Clinton's pulling the nomination without giving Ms. Guinier the chance to defend herself.

Now Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) admits he is exploring seriously the possibility of negotiating a new voting alliance-of-convenience with Congress' currently outnumbered Republicans, saying "We're tired of being told we have no place to go."

We've heard that before. But this time Mr. Rangel and other black leaders might mean it.

The Congressional Black Caucus has soared in size and clout (thanks, ironically, to some of the very reapportionment cases President Clinton called too controversial when he dumped Ms. Guinier) and appears eager, at last, to throw its weight around.

It has as many as 39 votes, if you count the District of Columbia's Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose vote is limited; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), the Senate's only black member, and Connecticut's Rep. Gary Frank, Congress' only black Republican.

That's enough votes to block Mr. Clinton's budget and other programs, especially if they ally with other congressional power blocs.

Mr. Rangel told me by telephone Tuesday that he was considering meeting with Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-N.Y.) or Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to discuss possible black support for a capital gains tax cut in exchange for Republican support for the urban agenda favored by blacks.

First, Mr. Rangel added, Treasury Department and congressional experts must confirm that a proposed capital gains tax cut will free up the trillions of dollars in revenue and create the thousands of new jobs that supply-side Republicans say it will.

And Republicans also must agree to at least part of the black caucus's agenda, Mr. Rangel says, which would be an abrupt shift for a party that has benefited more from white flight than black friends in recent years.

"We get a seat next to the kitchen with the Democratic Party and we get thrown into the kitchen with the Republican Party," quipped Mr. Rangel, who routinely appears on both Democratic and Republican ballots in his Harlem District.

"We're not wedded to the Democratic Party," he said. "We're wedded to our constituents and to providing maximum services to them."

Perhaps black leaders are discovering something Mr. Clinton's critics in Arkansas have been saying for years: It is better to be Bill Clinton's enemy than to be his friend.

If you're his enemy, he'll give you what you want, they say. But if you're his friend, he'll sell you out, like he sold out Ms. Guinier.

The first evidence of the truth of that statement (besides Mr. Clinton's betrayal of Haitian refugees) came quietly enough in late March when he caved in with astonishingly little pressure from western senators who wanted him to drop his proposed increases in grazing, timber-cutting and mining fees on millions of acres of public land in western states.

Suddenly Mr. Clinton's call for "shared sacrifice," the winning theme he sounded in his Feb. 17 budget address, sounded like so much hot air. The word was out: Clinton's a patsy. Press him and he folds.

Then Mr. Clinton's economic stimulus package fell to Sen. Bob Dole's Republican backlash, his investment tax credit fell to deficit hawks, his corporate tax increases were cut in half under lobbyists' pressures and his Btu energy tax fell to Oklahoma Sen. David Boren and other oil-state Democrats.

As those programs fell so did programs important to black caucus members, including universal child immunizations, summer job programs and community development block grants. As soon as a few bricks were loosened in the dome of "shared sacrifice," sharing flew out the window and every faction grabbed what it could.

Black leaders figured they, too, had better grab what they can, while there is still something left to grab.

For the Congressional Black Caucus, the agenda is primarily urban and aimed at poor and low-income "working poor."

That includes the proposed expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a key part of Mr. Clinton's much-touted welfare-to-work program, to provide relief and "make work pay" for those who make so little on their jobs that they might as well go (or stay) on welfare.

Other budget items black congressmen want to save or expand include job training, the low-income housing tax credit and "empowerment zones" to restore capitalistic enterprise to depressed inner-city neighborhoods.

Some black congressmen urge caution, for fear they might damage their own cause. Others point out that Mr. Clinton ignored them when formulating his proposed budget, just like Ronald Reagan and George Bush used to.

And, like the old song goes, when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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