By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A01
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) stepped aside as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, bringing a wrenching period for House Democrats to a temporary close but also providing a new jolt of chaos to a party struggling to maintain its footing.
Days after being admonished by the House ethics committee for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean, Rangel announced that he was taking a "leave of absence" as chairman. The move came as Republicans prepared to force a symbolic floor vote on stripping Rangel of his post, and as his fellow Democrats were making it increasingly clear that they lacked the stomach to support him as difficult midterm elections approached.
Still pending is the release of a potentially more damning ethics report about Rangel, expected to focus on his failure to declare income and assets and other financial matters in which he appeared to reap personal gain.
On Tuesday night, Rangel, 79, had boasted "you bet your life" he would remain in his committee post. But little more than 12 hours later, in a hastily called news conference, the most powerful African American chairman in the history of Congress surrendered his gavel, saying he was doing so for the good of his party.
The move created immediate ripples throughout the chamber. The chairmanship would normally be passed to Ways and Means' next-most-senior member, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). But rank-and-file committee Democrats clamored Wednesday for a more robust and long-term leader of what is traditionally one of the most powerful panels on Capitol Hill.
Stark, 78, is an outspoken liberal and often-controversial figure who has missed more than 250 votes in the past 13 months as he has struggled with an undisclosed illness. His history of intemperate remarks has been a source of consternation to colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who issued a statement praising Rangel's "decades of leadership," attended one of three separate huddles in which lawmakers sought to resolve the chairmanship dispute, but the panel's Democrats remained at odds Wednesday evening and planned to reconvene on the subject Thursday.
Lawmakers and aides brushed aside Pelosi's suggestion of a power-sharing deal between Stark and the third-ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sander M. Levin (Mich.). Others advocated a generational change by advancing Rep. Richard E. Neal (Mass.), who at 61 is the only Democrat younger than 70 among the top half-dozen lawmakers on the panel.
Rangel's long-running ethics saga had become a major distraction for Democrats, and Ways and Means -- which would normally be the hub of negotiations on health-care and tax matters -- had increasingly found itself outflanked by other panels or overruled by Pelosi's leadership team during recent legislative battles.
On Thursday, Rangel served as a Democratic spokesman at President Obama's bipartisan summit on health-care legislation, only to discover hours later that the ethics committee was announcing its decision to admonish him. According to GOP estimates, Democrats had returned or donated to charity more than $350,000 in political contributions from Rangel's political committees as of late Wednesday.
Rangel's move was effectively forced by Republicans, who on Tuesday appeared to have enough bipartisan support to win approval of their nonbinding resolution to remove him as chairman.
While Rangel's exit was billed as temporary, few lawmakers expect him to be able to return as chairman, given the ongoing investigations into his conduct. The ethics committee 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 to reveal more than $500,000 in unreported wealth, and improperly used a rent-controlled apartment for his political committees.
The ethics committee has not yet said when it will issue rulings on these matters. But, according to a source familiar with the ongoing probes, draft reports of two yet-to-be-released investigations could bring punishment of the 20-term lawmaker. According to two sources, investigators learned that Rangel sometimes signed his financial disclosure statements, which all members are required to submit, without reading them.
On Thursday, the ethics committee reprimanded Rangel after concluding that his staff was aware that corporations, including American Airlines, financed his 2007 and 2008 trips to Caribbean resorts for conferences. That broke new House rules forbidding such privately financed travel. Although the committee could not conclude that Rangel knew of the backing, the panel found him culpable because his staff had knowledge of the corporate underwriting.
Many lawmakers said in interviews this week that anything short of total exoneration in the pending investigations would make it politically impossible for Rangel to return as chairman.
Such an outcome could serve as a painful end to one of the most colorful careers on Capitol Hill for a man whose autobiography was titled "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since," a reference to his heroics during a harrowing moment in the Korean War after growing up in Harlem.
Elected in 1970, he ran as a reformer and ousted an ethically challenged incumbent, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rangel was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, but many colleagues have said recently that Rangel wasn't prepared for the new political era of constant media scrutiny and intense oversight.
In relenting to political pressure and stepping aside, Rangel told his colleagues that members of Congress are elected to serve their country and their party, and that Wednesday's choice was an effort to put his party first. "It just seems to me that I should not do anything that would impede the success of other Democrats," he told reporters.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.