By Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; 12:22 AM
In a defiant, dramatic and highly unusual speech, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) defended himself Tuesday against ethics charges by lashing out at the committee holding his trial, poking fun at President Obama, ridiculing conservative House Democrats and refusing to go away quietly.
"I am not going away. I am here," Rangel, 80, said in a rambling speech from the well of the House, during which he dared his colleagues to expel him.
A few lawmakers, including some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and fellow liberals, applauded, while most of his colleagues sat stone-faced. Midway through the 30-minute-plus speech -- which Rangel gave under the rarely used "point of personal privilege" rule allowing lawmakers to speak on any topic -- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) went to the back of the chamber to huddle with aides.
Democratic leaders were not given much notice of Rangel's intention to speak, and later Pelosi issued a statement suggesting that the issue should not spill onto the House floor: "As I have repeatedly stated, the independent, bipartisan ethics committee is the proper arena for ethics matters to be discussed."
Democratic leaders had called the unusual one-day session to produce a pair of legislative victories, approving a $26 billion package of financial aid to states and a $600 million border security bill, after the Senate unexpectedly passed those measures last week.
After a month of controversies, including the wrongful firing of an Agriculture Department official and ethics scandals, Democrats hoped Tuesday would be a pivot point for their rank-and-file members to tout in their districts throughout the summer recess.
Instead, Rangel demanded the "right to be heard." His main point of contention was his pending trial on 13 counts that he broke congressional rules regarding his personal finances and fundraising efforts for a college center named in his honor. The ethics committee has not given a formal schedule for the trial, which is likely to begin when the House returns in mid-September. Rangel demanded that the committee hold the trial sooner, presumably this month, while the rest of Congress is on break.
"Don't leave me swinging in the wind till November," he said. He noted that his primary election is Sept. 14, just as the House returns from its break, meaning his Harlem-based district will cast ballots not knowing the verdict of his trial. "I'm 80 years old. I don't want to die before the hearing."
As he spoke without notes, often several feet from the microphone while gesturing to both sides of the aisle, Rangel created a sense of drama in the chamber that he might resign on the spot. He complained about how much it cost to "keep counsel," with legal tabs already reaching $2 million. "Each and every day, the expenses mount up," he said.
He accused ethics committee Republicans of backing out of settlement talks and ridiculed the GOP in general for having no political ideas to run on in the midterms other than trying to associate endangered Democrats with his ethics problems.
But Rangel reserved his most acrid comments for the roughly 10 Democrats from conservative-leaning districts who have called for his resignation -- and for Obama, who told CBS News in an interview that Rangel should end his 40-year career "with dignity." While most observers took that as a sign Obama thought the embattled lawmaker might resign, Rangel said he interpreted it much differently. "He didn't put a time limit on it," he said.
Looking to his Democratic colleagues, Rangel reminded endangered Democrats how happy they were to bask in his fundraising glow while he was chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee: "I'm the guy that was raising money in Republican districts to get you here."
As he spoke, Republicans placed recorded calls to voters represented by the more than 30 Democrats who have not returned contributions from Rangel's political committees. "Charlie Rangel might not have been found guilty of ethical misconduct yet, but there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he helped build the Democratic majority by padding the campaign war chests of dozens of members of Congress with millions of dollars in contributions," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Rangel admitted to his colleagues that there were sloppy mistakes in filing his personal financial disclosure forms -- the basis of several counts against him, for not revealing more than $600,000 in income and assets -- and acknowledged that he should not have used congressional stationery for raising money for a wing at the City College of New York. But he said these were unintentional errors.
"It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it's not corrupt," he said, refusing any suggestion that he resign.
The investigative subcommittee that conducted the probe has recommended that Rangel be reprimanded, a mild sanction that would require a full House vote, but Rangel suggested that he would never accept any rebuke: "If I can't get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot at getting rid of me through expulsion."