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Black GOP Lawmakers Face Tricky Relations With Democrats

New Republican congressmen Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina have drawn plenty of attention as the first two GOP African Americans to fill House seats since Julius Caesar Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, better known by the initials J.C., left Congress in 2003.

Not all the attention has been positive. West, for instance, had an early personnel misstep when he hired to his staff a conservative talk radio host who had called Speaker Nancy Pelosi “garbage.” The host stayed in radio.

West, who won with Tea Party support, has indicated he's inclined to join the Congressional Black Caucus; Scott has sounded less certain.

Jason Johnson, a political scientist at Hiram College in Ohio, told Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne in an interview airing Wednesday he thinks it’s actually more likely Scott would interact with the Democratic and generally liberal CBC than West.

After all, the South Carolinian is more moderate than West even though Scott represents a more conservative district.

Johnson said:

“Depending on how acrimonious this new Congress is, depending on how much Republicans want to stand steadfast against most of Obama’s policies, Tim Scott could essentially position himself as the modern day J.C. Watts. He’s young, he’s dynamic, he’s in a very safe district.

And he could be seen as the person who walked to the Congressional Black Caucus and could get some kind of agreement, some sort of compromises done.

Alan West’s rhetoric was so volatile and so hostile throughout much of the campaign it seems unlikely that he would join the Congressional Black Caucus regardless of what he says right now if for other reason than, ideologically, he is fervently against 99 percent of what the (caucus) stands for.

For the record, while Watts had a smooth, conciliatory and camera-ready style that helped him become a member of the House Republican leadership, he never joined the CBC as Johnson's comments imply, instead declining the group's invitation.

It either West or Scott join the CBC, they could find their experiences quite rocky, more like what another black Republican congressman, Gary Franks of Connecticut, endured.

Franks, who was in Congress in the 1990s, joined the CBC but it was nearly always a difficult relationship.

He was accused of being a spy for House Republicans. He also had ideological clashes with CBC members because he opposed affirmative action and supported Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court to fill the seat previously occupied by Civil Rights icon Thurgood Marshall.

Given the highly partisan nature of Congress, it's hard to imagine CBC meetings including Scott and West ending with a lot of bipartisan hugs and kisses.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.