- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

For Rep. Major R. Owens, New York Democrat, the terminology of war does not overstate the alarm, dismay and dread that black lawmakers felt when Republicans took control of the House in January 1995.

"We were shellshocked, simply shellshocked," Mr. Owens said. "We had a number of good people poised for leadership positions, but when we lost the House, it was over. We just lost it all."

As loyal liberals in a party that had to inch to the political center to work with ruling Republicans, black and other minority House members found themselves without political capital on Capitol Hill.

That could change if Democrats win back the House in the fall election. Few are anticipating the voting more eagerly than black lawmakers.

"All elections are important for us, but this one will have a little extra 'oomph' behind it for us in particular," said Rep. Carrie P. Meek, Florida Democrat. "Many parts of our agenda haven't received a full hearing since 1994, so we have a lot at stake."

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, said the 1994 election was particularly tough on minority members, among the most liberal in Congress.

Not only did they find themselves with a lesser voice inside the Democratic Party, he said, but senior black lawmakers on the cusp of heading committees Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, Michigan's Rep. John Conyers Jr. and Missouri's retiring William L. Clay had to wait.

"The Republicans took absolute control and reversed most legislation favored by minorities," Mr. Walters said. "The minority members of Congress didn't have any power on key committees. Whatever impact they had was lost."

Mr. Rangel, almost certain to chair the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in a Democratic Congress, said the past five years of reduced clout have taught black lawmakers a need to be more resourceful to accomplish their goals.

"We've been forced to be united like never before," Mr. Rangel said. "We've had to support each other and join with groups we never would have thought to increase our backing."

As an example, Mr. Rangel said he has worked on legislation with the House's "Blue Dog" Democrats, the most conservative members of the party. He said he considers even himself a member.

"We have to find things to fold into their agenda," Mr. Rangel said. "Sometimes, they need our help, and we do a little negotiating."

Mr. Owens, in line for a subcommittee chairmanship on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, agreed that black lawmakers have had to become more deft in forming coalitions, lobbying and maintaining cohesion for the sake of their agenda.

"When we got them to back up on ending affirmative action, when we got the president to send troops to Haiti, it was because they felt some pressure from us in the black caucus," he said. "There were fewer breakthroughs for us as individuals, but we got some things done as a team."

Mr. Owens said a Democratic majority in the House likely would bring an unprecedented measure of political power to minorities if coalition politics with Asians and Hispanics take root.

The 36 votes of the black lawmakers, 16 votes in the Hispanic caucus and other progressive allies in the House would become a crucial bloc to passing or defeating legislation.

"It would clearly be a new, more empowered environment for minority members," said Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.

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