Black Caucus Uses Its Clout Effectively but Also Carefully

IT'S standing-room-only in the House radio and TV gallery, and the main speaker for the press conference is late, but none of the assembled reporters budges from his or her spot.

The words of Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, are too important to miss. On this occasion, the subject is the crime bill, and in particular the outcome of negotiations between the black caucus and the White House on a provision called the Racial Justice Act, which aims to eliminate bias in the use of the death penalty.

But it could be any of a number of issues that would keep the press glued to their chairs - Haiti, campaign finance reform, the crime bill, health care reform. Like never before, the black caucus has positioned itself front and center on the issues of the day, able to hold enormous sway over legislation by driving a hard bargain on matters members hold dear.

With 38 Democratic members in the House - up from 26 in the last Congress - the caucus represents one of Congress's most cohesive voting blocs. And it also is able to gain media attention. Along with growth in numbers, say observers of the caucus, has come a growing sophistication in playing the insider's game of tough political give and take before votes are taken. It gets a lot of what it wants before a vote. But it votes with the Democratic Party 98 percent of the time.

President Clinton reckons with the group constantly. Mr. Mfume announced last week that the caucus had reached an impasse with the White House on the Racial Justice Act. The White House argues that if the act, which the Senate opposes, remains, the whole crime bill could be lost. Mfume does not threaten that the caucus will vote en masse against the crime bill. But the group will attempt to change the bill through a procedural motion. Ultimately, he says, each member will vote his or her own conscience. But, he adds, ``I'm hopeful that the White House understands the new math.''

``They can count, and they understand also that we have a very important role to play here,'' Mfume says. ``We're not trying to tie up anything or be obstructionist. It's just that we would be derelict in our responsibilities if we thought we could conveniently do away with the concept of fairness for the sake of getting along with this White House or anyone else.''

Clinton knows the crime bill has many other things in it for the black caucus - such as more police on the streets and millions of dollars for crime prevention. So the White House, it appears, is calculating that most black members will not vote against a bill with much to recommend it, even without the Racial Justice Act.

The same does not appear true for campaign finance reform, another bill the black caucus could scuttle. Republicans want to limit, if not abolish, political action committees (PACs). House Democrats want no change in the current setup - and especially black members, who say they rely more heavily on PAC contributions than the average white member, because their constituents are poorer.

On Haiti, caucus members have been among the most vocal in Congress supporting a United States invasion to correct the situation. The caucus, along with activist Randall Robinson, is widely perceived to have been the driving force behind Clinton's recent change in policy toward Haiti.

Indeed, a bill introduced by the black caucus in March to change the Haiti policy didn't even need a vote: the administration adopted most of its provisions anyway.

David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and author of a forthcoming book on the black caucus, cautions against overstating the group's successes.

``In some respects,'' he says, ``this year has been frustrating, because of constraints in the five-year US budget plan. They have an activist agenda, and there's not much money.'' Beyond that, he adds, is a Senate with only one black member.

Another powerful reason for Clinton not to alienate the black caucus is health-care reform. He will need caucus members' votes.

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