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Black lawmakers set to assume more powerful roles in House

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WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus is on the verge of becoming the most powerful bloc in the U.S. House when Democrats take control in January, with members to lead at least five committees and more than a dozen subcommittees.

That could increase the likelihood of conflict with the White House, as black Democrats have been forceful critics of President Donald Trump, saying he's made racially loaded comments about black politicians, singled out black women for attack and equivocated about white supremacists who support him. Among those Trump opponents set to lead committees is Rep. Maxine Waters of California, expected to be chairwoman of Financial Services.

There will be a record number of black lawmakers in the House in January — more than 50 — and the chairmen will be among the most powerful, with the ability to issue subpoenas to get information from the Trump administration. They're already saying they want to probe Trump's short-lived policy of separating undocumented migrant families and hold hearings and investigate allegations of voter suppression by the GOP, among other areas.

The number of black committee chairmen will present a stark contrast to the current GOP-led House, which has none — a product of the fact that there are only two black Republicans in the chamber. Even so, the number of black committee leaders will be lower than in the 1980s, when there were seven, and on par with 2007-09 and 1991-93 when there were also five.

Those slated to lead committees in January also include Elijah Cummings, 67, of Maryland, on Oversight and Government Reform; Bennie Thompson, 70, of Mississippi, on Homeland Security; Bobby Scott, 71, of Virginia, on Education and the Workforce; and Eddie Bernice Johnson, 82, of Texas, on Science, Space and Technology.

Like many other Democrats, most of those lawmakers criticized Republicans for doing too little oversight of Trump, his administration and its policies, or for blocking Democrats from doing so.

They will now have the ability to investigate Trump and his administration and more directly challenge his legislative agenda.

Trump stoked animosity with black lawmakers in advance of last week's elections by making comments Democrats decried as racist.

Trump described Democrat Stacey Abrams, a black candidate for governor in Georgia, as "not qualified" even though she has a degree from Yale Law School and was minority leader of the state's Legislature. He said Andrew Gillum, a black candidate for Florida governor, was "not equipped" to hold the office even though he serves as mayor of Tallahassee. Trump also called Waters, 80, who has served in Congress since 1990, "an extraordinarily low IQ person."

Waters has called the president "an immoral, indecent, & inhumane thug."

On Friday evening, Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said in a statement that Trump is "an insecure bully and lacks basic respect for others," citing "abusive and disrespectful" comments he made about black women.

"This president clearly has demonstrated animus toward women in general, but black women in particular," Richmond said. "This has to stop."

The president's patterns of attacking lawmakers who criticize him, especially minorities, suggest the committee leaders are likely to become targets if they follow through with plans for aggressive oversight.

"Overtly he has manifested the kind of attitude toward African=Americans that is negative," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, 82, of Florida, a senior member of the black caucus. Trump has disputed claims that he's made racist comments.

Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said he and other white House Democrats are prepared to defend their black colleagues if Trump attacks them as they lead committees overseeing the administration.

He said "the overt racism of this campaign" makes Democrats "protective of our black colleagues."

Waters said that as chairwoman she would hold accountable financial and regulatory agencies under her jurisdiction.

"For the last two years, Republicans in Congress have served as accomplices to Trump and have completely neglected Congress' oversight responsibilities, enabling corruption and destructive policies to run rampant," Waters said in a statement.

Cummings said voters expect Democrats to do a better job policing the administration.

"The American people voted to give the House of Representatives a mandate — to conduct credible, independent, robust and responsible oversight of the Trump administration," he said.

Johnson said her agenda includes restoring "the credibility" of the science panel "as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policy making," including on climate change, and challenging harmful administration actions.

Other black lawmakers are poised to ascend to the top spots on more than a dozen subcommittees, dealing with topics including commodity exchanges, monetary policy, trade, agriculture, insurance, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness.

Party rules dictate that committee leaders are chosen largely based on seniority, a policy that has endured with the support of the black caucus. Its leaders contend black lawmakers could be passed over otherwise.

Aside from committee chairmen, the Congressional Black Caucus is insisting that Democrats keep a representative of the group within the top three rungs of the House leadership.

Incoming House Democratic freshmen and re-elected Democrats will decide on their party leaders — including whether to keep Nancy Pelosi of California as the top leader — in closed-door elections expected after Thanksgiving.

Democrat James Clyburn, 78, of South Carolina, who is black, currently holds the No. 3 position, and is seeking to remain in that slot against one challenger announced so far, Diana DeGette, 61, of Colorado. Two black lawmakers are seeing the No. 4 leadership job.

"African-Americans deserve more than a simple gesture of gratitude — they deserve representation at the apex of the party's infrastructure," Richmond wrote in a recent letter to colleagues.

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