By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) sat stone-faced as the House chamber buzzed around him, preparing to vote on a measure that could partly undo his almost four decades of work in Congress.
As Republicans pressed their attempt to remove him from his perch as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Democrats stood by Rangel -- who is under investigation for a series of alleged violations that include improperly occupying several rent-controlled New York City apartments and not disclosing a laundry list of income and assets -- and deflected the measure to committee.
They have stuck with Rangel repeatedly as the list of charges against him has grown, resisting any temptation to push aside a popular fixture in the party who helped found the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. They have done so despite vows from Republicans to continue to force them to go on the record in defense of their colleague. But the issue carries complications for both parties.
Instead of full-throated defenses of Rangel, House Democrats measured their comments. Asked whether the controversy would have any negative impact on his party, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sidestepped the question, saying that "the issue is making sure there is a fair process."
Some Republicans, meanwhile, chafed at the sharp rhetoric aimed at Rangel, a jovial lawmaker who has many friends in both parties and is in a position to dole out favors on both sides of the aisle.
"There are some serious issues," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who voted with the Democrats on Wednesday and said he was not ready to call for Rangel to give up his chairmanship. "But from what I know, there was no malice or malfeasance. He's a war hero, he's been here for 40 years, he's a decent guy."
The Republican-sponsored resolution said Rangel was unfit to serve as the chairman of the powerful committee that writes tax laws while he remains under investigation. Democrats blocked the move, sending the resolution by Rep. John Carter (Tex.) to the ethics committee and saying Congress should not act until that panel completes its investigation.
The resolution was the fourth attempt by Republicans in the past 16 months to censure Rangel or strip him of his committee chairmanship. House Republican leaders pushed their members to back the resolution against the Harlem lawmaker, arguing that his conduct violated pledges from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2006 to oversee the "most ethical Congress in history" and end what she called "the culture of corruption" when Republicans ruled the House.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) accused Pelosi of "breaking her promise," and party strategists said they would attack Democratic lawmakers in competitive districts who vote to keep Rangel in power or accept campaign donations from him.
"The Democrats have a number of ethics and corruption issues they are going to have deal with next year," said Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has run an ad attacking Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.) for accepting campaign contributions from Rangel.
A Pelosi spokesman brushed aside Republican complaints, saying, "Democrats have passed tough ethics and lobbying laws, increased transparency in congressional operations and legislating." Jennifer Crider, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Rangel's conduct would pose little danger for Democratic members in swing districts because "our members have built independent profiles."
"I think people will look at it and say, 'What is my congressman doing?' " said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), who was first elected in a tight race in 2006. "I don't see it having a big impact."
Carter, a member of the GOP leadership who has become one of Rangel's main antagonists, spent more than 15 minutes reading from the resolution he had written, which pulled from numerous newspaper articles describing allegations against Rangel and editorials calling for his resignation. He accused Rangel of conduct that "held the House up to public ridicule."
In an occurrence rarely seen on the House floor, Carter read his resolution -- nine pages and more than 2,000 words. While other members talked to aides or read, Rangel sat silent and expressionless in the first row on the Democratic side of the aisle, eyes fixed on Carter.
"We can already hear the defense of the next tax deadbeat called into court. 'If Charlie Rangel doesn't have to pay his taxes, why should I?' " Carter said, quoting from an editorial in the New Haven Register.
Carter listed nearly every allegation against Rangel, who himself called for the ethics committee to examine his conduct last year. Rangel admitted last month that he failed to report more than $500,000 in assets on his 2007 federal disclosure forms. Last year, he acknowledged failing to disclose and pay taxes on at least $75,000 in rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic that he has owned.
He has been accused of improperly using congressional stationery to solicit donations for an academic center bearing his name at the City College of New York and attending a conference last year in St. Martin that was paid for by donors who employ lobbyists, a violation of House rules.
After a bill is introduced in Congress, by rule, a clerk reads the bill aloud, but members of Congress can bring such a reading to a halt by saying they are already aware of the legislation's details. But when Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a Rangel friend, stood up to say such a reading was unnecessary, a number of Republicans immediately objected.
The clerk then proceeded to repeat the blistering text Carter had already read himself, as Rangel sat silently, not uttering a word to the longtime colleagues sitting beside him, Reps. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).
Rangel walked slowly from the House chamber as the roll-call vote began, saying little to Democrats who patted him on the back and looked eager to comfort him.
The Democrats then voted to cede the issue to ethics committee, keeping Rangel in his chairmanship for now. That proposal has little practical impact since the ethics committee is already investigating Rangel and has been for more than a year.
In the end, Six Republicans crossed over to vote with Democrats, while two members of Rangel's party, Mississippi Reps. Gene Taylor and Travis Childers, sided with the GOP.
Rangel said little about the politics surrounding the resolution or the threat to his legacy Wednesday, telling reporters after the vote, "It's a thing that bothers me and my family."