The Congressional Black Caucus is bigger than ever, but it finds itself struggling to make headway in a Washington where Republicans control all the levers of political power.
The caucus has staged its chief fight of the new year over Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Justice Department — but bristled after being relegated to the last panel of witnesses to speak. The CBC’s chairman compared it to being pushed to the back of the bus during segregation.
Although the 49-member organization’s objections may bolster fellow Democrats, they are having little effect otherwise. Republicans are poised to confirm Mr. Sessions, despite civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’ warning that the nominee could take the country back to an era when blacks were “beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody.”
The CBC also has been dragged into a bizarre fight over a painting hung on the walls of the Capitol complex that critics say depicts a police officer as a pig.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly taken matters into their own hands by pulling down the painting, which was posted by Rep. William “Lacy” Clay, a Missouri Democrat and CBC member. Mr. Clay selected the painting as the winner from his district of the 2016 student art competition.
Each time the painting was pulled down, Mr. Clay would restore it.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat and the new chairman of the CBC, said he was getting fed up.
“We may just have to kick somebody’s ass and stop them,” he told Politico.
Mr. Clay said Mr. Richmond, who is serving a two-year term, has the makings of a strong leader as the CBC prepares for its role as the ultimate outsider.
“He is a no-nonsense type of fellow, speaks his mind, and will be very aggressive about pushing our interests,” he said, adding that he is optimistic the caucus will have strength in numbers. “We are 25 percent of the entire Democratic caucus, and I think if we remain united and vote our numbers then you’ll get the attention of our caucus — and lawmakers on other side of the aisle.”
The CBC is at a crossroads.
For the past eight years, it operated in the shadow of President Obama — torn, at times, between showing allegiance to the nation’s first black president and airing its grievances over his reluctance to embrace the caucus agenda in a more forceful way.
Now, as Mr. Obama heads for the exit and Mr. Trump prepares to be sworn in, CBC members say they expect to be more aggressive in pursuing their agenda.
“Frankly the African-American community does look to the Congressional Black Caucus to be able to be informed and strong about issues that impact them,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas told The Washington Times. “My sense is the African-American community now today is frightened about the direction of this country after what they have seen over the past couple of weeks.”
That is part of the reason the CBC inserted itself so forcefully into the debate over Mr. Sessions, an Alabama Republican who Democrats fear would not be sympathetic to their causes if he heads the Justice Department.
In a massive break with tradition, Sen. Cory A. Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and CBC member, requested time to testify against Mr. Sessions. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Richmond also testified.
“The CBC believes Sen. Sessions should be disqualified,” Mr. Richmond said Thursday. “He has demonstrated a total disregard for the equal application of justice and protection of the law as it applies to African-Americans and falls short on so many issues.”
Mr. Richmond also blasted Senate Republicans for what he said was a mark of disrespect against Mr. Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, by making him wait until the end of the hearing. He and the other CBC members were part of a panel that also included black supporters of Mr. Sessions.
CBC members also devoted an hour on the floor of the House to voicing opposition to Mr. Sessions, as well as Betsy Devos and fellow Rep. Tom Price of Georgia — Mr. Trump’s picks to lead the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The president-elect’s nominees represent everything that the Congressional Black Caucus has vehemently fought against,” said Rep. Marc A. Veasey, Texas Democrat. “As a caucus, we fought to ensure that the African-American community is empowered with the tools it needs to achieve the American dream. Mr. Trump’s Cabinet nominations are set to push the dream back so far out of reach for millions and millions of Americans.”
Founded in 1971 by 13 members of the House, the caucus now has 49 members, including two in the Senate: Mr. Booker and Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California.
The organization is perhaps the most powerful force within House Democrats, with its members holding an outsized share of ranking posts on committees.
That is partly because of seniority. The districts of many black lawmakers are protected under civil rights laws.
The caucus in recent years has called for stricter federal gun control laws and a federal response to the police shootings of unarmed black people. It has sought changes to the criminal justice system, hoping to reduce the incarceration rates in poor and minority communities.
It also has advocated for more minorities to be placed on the Supreme Court, accused Republicans of backing voter suppression efforts and demanded the restoration of sections of the Voting Rights Act that the high court struck down in 2013.
“The Congressional Black Caucus has always been the conscience of the Congress, and I think we will continue to be that, and I think you are going to find the CBC fighting along with other Democrats for the soul of our Democracy,” said Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. “Because African-American people have been such beneficiaries of the Democracy and of the Constitution, it is incumbent upon us to make sure we preserve the democracy.”