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Visibility on Haiti issue helps Black Caucus chart its political ascendancy


WASHINGTON -- It is probably fitting that President Clinton's nationally televised threat to oust the leaders of Haiti's military regime came during the height of the Congressional Black Caucus' annual celebration and legislative conference here.

The Black Caucus has been the most visible group prodding Mr. Clinton to take a more aggressive stand on Haiti. And the fact that Mr. Clinton is threatening an invasion, despite polls showing tepid American support for it, is evidence of the group's newfound clout, observers say.

"There is no doubt that blacks in Congress have more day-to-day leverage than ever," said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. "On a given day, with committee and subcommittee chairs, there is a level of influence expressed in committees and on the floor that is unprecedented."

Over the past two years, the caucus' influence in Congress has extended beyond the issue of bringing democracy back to Haiti. Although its efforts yielded mixed results, the caucus helped write some of the prevention programs into the president's recently signed crime bill as well as the deficit reduction plan put into effect last year.

This is brand new ground for the Black Caucus, which for much of its 24-year history has suffered with the image of being little more than a protest group within Congress. For many of those years the group pursued symbolic actions, such as its alternative budget, which may have allowed members to make valuable rhetorical points but had no chance of becoming law.

The fundamental problem was that the caucus, the self-described "conscience of the Congress," commanded too few votes to make a difference on most legislation. In years past, often the best that caucus members could hope for was to make moral arguments or attempt to embarrass other legislators into positions they supported.

But in 1993 the ranks of the caucus swelled from 26 to 40, mostly due to new majority-black congressional districts created under the Voting Rights Act. It was the biggest increase in the number of black members of Congress since Reconstruction. With the added membership came leverage that the caucus needed to become a real broker on a wider range of legislation.

In addition, more caucus members filtered into the establishment of Congress: Black legislators now lead three of 23 House committees and 17 House subcommittees.

"When they are in those positions, they affect what legislation is drafted at the very beginning of the process," said David A. Brositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The caucus celebrated its new heights at its glittering annual gathering this week. The event brought together thousands of black policy-makers for workshops and an unparalleled lineup of parties. But even in this heady atmosphere, caucus members were acutely aware that the caucus' newly gained influence could be fleeting.

Several of the new majority-black voting districts are facing court challenges, a threat that outgoing caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, calls "one of the two top issues" the group faces.

If those districts are struck down, the number of black members of Congress is likely to shrink.

And while Mr. Clinton has stepped up the pressure on Haiti at the urging of caucus members, similar triumphs appear unlikely in the future. The president has signaled that he will embrace more conservative positions in the second half of his term. To a caucus that already views the president as a centrist, this could mean renewed political isolation.

As caucus members deal with those issues, they also must take into account the expectations of their often frustrated constituents.

"We still have to see ourselves as an outside force, because we represent more people who are trapped outside the system than any other group of Congress members," said Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr., senior caucus member.

Mr. Jackson, who has made noises about running for president again in 1996, said he applauded the caucus' expanded role in Congress. But, he added, "there is the constant need to avoid being absorbed by the system to the point where you lose clarity."

Mr. Brositis, who has written a book analyzing the caucus' legislative role, agreed. "The fact that the caucus is increasingly part of the Democratic leadership has an upside and a downside," he said. "The upside is they have more influence; the downside is that when they are acting in the role of being #F Democratic leaders, they are not first and foremost black leaders."

But portraying themselves as "black leaders" sometimes hurts caucus members in the eyes of their white colleagues and others. Mr. Mfume faced widespread criticism -- including some from fellow caucus members -- for forging what he called "a sacred covenant" last year between the Black Caucus and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. After an anti-Semitic speech by a Nation of Islam official, Mr. Mfume was later forced to back off that position.

"There is a great deal of misunderstanding on the part of a great many Americans," Mr. Mfume said. "[They see] the Congressional Black Caucus as a wide-eyed, crazy, pinko, Communist, liberal, twisted group that can't think for itself, is out of step with everybody and everything, and has nothing better to do than stand up and put forth and advance positions."

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