By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A05
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) sounded a defiant note Tuesday, telling reporters that he had no intention of stepping down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee even as a growing number of Democrats have called for him to give up the post at least temporarily.
House Democrats have become increasingly leery of Rangel, a powerful member, after the House ethics committee admonished him last week for accepting corporate-financed travel.
Among them is Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), a rising star in the Congressional Black Caucus -- which Rangel co-founded nearly 40 years ago. On Tuesday, Davis became the first caucus member to urge him to give up his gavel.
"Representative Rangel has had a long and distinguished career and I respect his leadership, but I believe Congress needs to do more to restore the public trust," said Davis, who is running for Alabama governor this year. "An ethics committee admonishment is a serious event, and Representative Rangel should do the right thing and step aside."
Later, Rangel met for 40 minutes Tuesday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Many senior aides thought that the meeting was arranged so Rangel could offer his resignation, at least temporarily, and they openly speculated on who would succeed him. But Rangel emerged smiling, telling reporters that most of the time was spent discussing what to tell the news media, despite admonitions from Pelosi to say nothing at all.
Rangel was asked whether he would remain at the helm of Ways and Means -- the committee with jurisdiction over tax and trade issues. He answered, "Yes, and I don't lie to the press."
For her part, Pelosi whispered "no comment" to the two dozen reporters gathered outside her office. The Hill newspaper reported that she later said, "I guess he still is chair of Ways and Means."
Pelosi is facing her most serious ethics quandary since she became speaker three years ago, vowing to run "the most ethical Congress in history." Her fellow Democrats are also facing sharp attacks from Republicans calling for Rangel's ouster.
The ethics committee reprimanded Rangel after concluding that his staff was aware that corporations, such as American Airlines, financed his 2007 and 2008 trips to Caribbean resorts for conferences. That broke new House rules forbidding such privately financed travel. While the committee could not conclude that Rangel knew of the backing, the panel found him culpable for his staff's knowledge.
Since then, more than 10 Democrats have distanced themselves from Rangel, giving back money he donated to their campaigns or saying they would back a Republican-sponsored resolution calling for him to resign his post.
Many senior Democrats remain behind Rangel, for now, citing their belief that the Caribbean ethics charge does not warrant such a steep penalty. Instead they say they will await the outcome of a more serious inquiry.
The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the panel is formally known, is looking into allegations that Rangel failed to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, used his congressional office to raise money for the wing of a New York college named in his honor, revised financial disclosure forms that show more than $500,000 in unreported wealth, and used a rent-controlled apartment for his political committees.
"We haven't finished the whole ethics review, so we ought to see where that ends up," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).
But House Republicans intend to offer a resolution this week calling for Rangel to step down, the third such effort in two years. It would be nonbinding, but an affirmative vote could force party leaders to remove the gavel from Rangel, one of the most influential black lawmakers in history.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), a friend of Rangel's, defended the lawmaker, saying the ethics committee should not have rebuked Rangel for his staff's knowledge of the Caribbean conferences. Punishing a lawmaker who did not knowingly violate the rules, Meeks said, was "a standard I've never heard before."
Several House Democrats lamented such a controversy in an already precarious electoral year.
"Voters in New Hampshire care a lot about honesty and effective government," said Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), who is running for the Senate in his state and called for Rangel to step aside. "I think we are in a zero-tolerance atmosphere."
Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.