N.C.'s Watt Heads Congressional Black Caucus

Rep. Mel Watt (search), a North Carolina Democrat whose document condemning the war with Iraq became policy for the Congressional Black Caucus (search), was elected the group's leader Monday. He pledged to pursue more frequent meetings with the White House.

"My attitude would be to treat this new election as a possibility of a new beginning and to aggressively say to the president, 'We would like to reinstate our regular meetings with you if you would be willing to do that,'" Watt said.

Despite that olive branch to the Republican White House, Watt gave little signal the all-Democratic group of black lawmakers would change its historically left-leaning policies.

Even if the Democratic Party finds the need to reinvent itself after last month's losses, Watt said he didn't expect a metamorphosis for the caucus. "I'm sure political activism will be part of the Congressional Black Caucus' agenda," he said.

The caucus next year will have 43 members, including 42 House lawmakers and incoming Senate freshman Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Watt was unanimously elected chairman for a two-year term beginning in January, succeeding Rep. Elijah Cummings (search), D-Md.

One of Congress' more outspoken Bush critics, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, was elected as the caucus' first vice chair. Earlier this year, the House voted to strike from the official record Brown's comments that Bush "stole" the 2000 election during the Florida recount.

The caucus elected Michigan Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick second vice chair, Illinois Rep. Danny Davis secretary and California Rep. Barbara Lee whip.

During the presidential campaign, Democratic nominee John Kerry often criticized Bush for not continuing President Clinton's practice of meeting regularly with Congressional Black Caucus members.

Watt said he was encouraged by Bush's comments about trying to unite the country and was somewhat optimistic there could be such a dialogue. "Whether he lives up to that rhetoric will be up to him," Watt said.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy declined to comment on whether Bush would meet regularly with the caucus.

"We don't speculate on the president's schedule," Duffy said. "I have every expectation he'll want to sit down with the caucus again on the key issues in the second term."

Watt represents a district that stretches from Charlotte through the Winston-Salem and Greensboro region. His district has North Carolina's second-highest concentration of Democratic voters.

Cummings, Watt's predecessor, called Watt's written condemnation of the Iraq war "one of the most profound documents ever written about Iraq." The caucus adopted the statement as its official stance on the conflict.

After a meeting with the caucus this year, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Watt of using an "obscene epithet" while trying to persuade Nader to drop out of the race. Watt denied the accusation, calling it an "arrogant ego trip."