Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., pauses as he speaks to the media after he was censured by the House, on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010.
As some of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's closest allies voted against a lighter punishment for Rep. Charles Rangel on Thursday afternoon, Rangel's friends took note of the "no" votes on the scoreboard on the southern wall of the chamber.
Those opting for a tougher Rangel punishment were Pelosi lieutenants George Miller, Anna Eshoo and Steve Israel, who were among the 105 Democrats who voted to make sure the New York Democrat would face the more severe censure, a public castigation that has been meted out only 23 times in the chamber's history and ranks just below expulsion.
Some black lawmakers believe Pelosi's camp was more concerned about public backlash if the House opted for the lesser sanction — "a reprimand" — than they were about ensuring fairness for Rangel. In private conversations on the House floor, Congressional Black Caucus members talked about Rangel receiving too harsh a judgment in service of Pelosi's 2006 campaign-year promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington.
The entire episode heated simmering tension between Pelosi and members of the CBC, who have chafed under her new ethics regime and who took umbrage when her decision to remain minority leader threatened the position of the highest-ranking African American in Congress, South Carolina's Jim Clyburn, at the leadership table. Each new abrasion reminds CBC members of slights real and perceived in the past, including chairmanships and committee assignments that went to other lawmakers.
"I know the leadership is interested in 'cleaning out the swamp.' But Mr. Rangel isn't the Swamp Thing. The punishment censure did not fit the circumstances of Mr. Rangel's so-called crime," said one member of the CBC who described caucus members as "very" upset.
"[Rep. Bobby] Scott [who spoke for Rangel on the floor] laid out a clear case. I wish the leadership were that clear. Mr. Rangel earned greater care than our [Democratic] Caucus provided,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity.
Pelosi can ill afford to alienate new blocs of lawmakers after losing 43 votes in her campaign for minority leader after the worst electoral debacle for congressional Democrats in generations. Already, there are dissidents in the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, as well as in the ranks of progressives who feel her iron grip on the party's messaging and legislative program have drowned their voices.
Still, the pockets of dissent represent a minority of the Democratic Caucus, and the threat of retribution from Pelosi remains a powerful disincentive to complain publicly.
One CBC member asked to provide an on-the-record comment — any comment — on the relationship between Pelosi and her black colleagues flatly declined, telling POLITICO it would be "suicidal" to do so.
Pelosi never said publicly whether she preferred censure or reprimand, as she used her privilege as speaker to avoid voting either option Thursday. Her office said she couldn't be reached Friday.
But she managed to add insult to injury during a Democratic whip meeting Thursday in which party leaders outlined the floor procedures for the censure proceeding.
"It got very emotional," said one Democrat who witnessed the exchange. “Pelosi clearly wanted to just get this done. Charlie wanted the right to amend the [censure] resolution, to change it [to] reprimand. It got very tense.”
Rangel's backers argued that the nature of his 11 ethics violations didn't rise to the level of censure and that they should have a chance to offer an amendment to reduce his sentence.
There was a tussle over whether to bring in the parliamentarian to discuss the available procedural options. One Democratic insider told POLITICO that some of the tension arose from confusion over the process, fueled in part by Pelosi's own uncertainty about the rules.
The outgoing speaker was described as "teary" while discussing the impending rebuke of Rangel.
After the meeting, CBC members used checklists produced by Clyburn's whip operation to count votes in favor of the reprimand option, which was offered by G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who is a member of both the CBC and the ethics committee.
A spokeswoman for Clyburn told POLITICO that the CBC, not the whip's office, was in charge of counting votes.
Still, Clyburn, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Caucus Chairman John Larson and Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra all voted for the reprimand amendment while Pelosi abstained. The majority of House Democrats, by a margin of 143 to 105, preferred a reprimand.
Without any evidence to the contrary, many of her colleagues reacted to the votes of Miller, Eshoo, Israel and others as a sign of Pelosi acquiescence if not active support for the more severe censure.
"It's obvious what message she gave her lieutenants," said one Democratic insider who said there was "palpable anger" not only in the CBC but also the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Rangel's New York delegation. Of the 77 Democrats who voted against censuring him after the reprimand amendment failed, 53 are minorities. Another nine are white New Yorkers.
In the end, the 80-year-old Rangel was subjected to the public humiliation of standing in the well of the house as Pelosi, standing at a podium high above, censured him in front of C-SPAN and everyone.
It's an image members of the CBC seem unlikely to forget anytime soon.