WASHINGTON -- Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, who makes no secret of his desire to be speaker of the House, has begun to tell colleagues that he is thinking of running for the fourth-highest leadership position in the House, chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the current Democratic Caucus chairman, must step aside when the next Congress convenes in 15 months because of a limit of two two-year terms. Mr. Hoyer became chairman in July 1989.
The Southern Maryland Democrat is expected to seek another leadership position.
Mr. Mfume, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said yesterday that he is "actively considering" a bid to head the Democratic Caucus. "I have a great deal to offer to that position," he said. "I do have a very serious interest in it."
But the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Vic Fazio
of California, is considered the odds-on favorite to win the chairmanship.
Mr. Mfume has represented Maryland's 7th District, which includes much of Baltimore and part of western Baltimore County, since 1987. He was elected chairman of the Black Caucus in December.
He said he would run for chairman of the Democratic Caucus only if he concluded, among other things, that the position "puts me in a position to better work for and provide for the people of Baltimore City and Baltimore County."
A number of House Democrats have begun to jockey for leadership positions on the chance that Speaker Thomas S. Foley will not return in the next Congress. Should the speakership or another high-level position open up, there could be a scramble for leadership jobs in which Mr. Fazio would decide to seek another post, giving Mr. Mfume a better shot at the chairmanship.
Mr. Mfume said he is not ruling out a bid for another post if a broad leadership scramble develops. But, should the caucus chairmanship be the only top vacancy, Mr. Mfume could avoid a battle with Mr. Fazio by running for vice chairman.
Several House members said yesterday there will be pressure for a woman or a member of a minority group in at least one of the top leadership posts in the next Congress.
The highest leadership positions held by minority House members are appointive deputy whip positions. Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a deputy whip and member of the Hispanic Caucus, said yesterday that it is likely that the Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus would unite behind
a single minority candidate for a top position. The two caucuses held their first formal joint meeting this week in a bid to create a bigger voting bloc by developing unified positions on issues.
The 38 House Democrats in the Black Caucus and 15 in the Hispanic Caucus together constitute 20 percent of the House Democratic membership.
Asked about a prospective Mfume candidacy for the Democratic Caucus chairmanship, Mr. Richardson said, "I think if he chooses to do that, he would be able to count on substantial Hispanic support."
The Black Caucus grew this year from 26 to 40 members, reaching a size that has given it a pivotal role in some close House votes. Mr. Mfume, as its chairman, has become a player on important pieces of legislation -- the Clinton tax and deficit reduction package, for example.
He has won the respect of many of his colleagues by being willing to negotiate while at the same time trying to protect the interests of African-Americans and members of other minority groups.
He tried to dissuade President Clinton from dropping Lani Guinier's nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights, and then sharply criticized the president when he withdrew the controversial nomination. He also has sought to influence administration foreign policy on issues important to the Black Caucus, including Somalia and Haiti.
All those issues have put Mr. Mfume in the national spotlight, making him a regular on network television newscasts.
But House leadership positions are won by building friendships with colleagues rather than with TV exposure. Mr. Mfume has worked hard at "paying his dues," for example spending hours in the speaker's chair presiding over House debates, a largely tedious and thankless job.
Mr. Mfume said he expects House Democrats to become "a more diverse group" in next year's election. "The Democratic Caucus . . . will require an individual [as chairman] who can talk to everybody and command the respect of everybody."