By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A02
The Democrats, at long last, had strung together a good day. They forced House Republicans to return, grumbling, from summer vacation for votes that allowed Democrats to show support for teachers, cops and strong borders.
Then they got Rangeled.
"For what purpose does the gentleman from New York seek recognition?" the speaker asked of Rep. Charlie Rangel, the fallen Ways and Means chairman, when he rose from his seat early Tuesday afternoon.
The gentleman from New York sought recognition to deliver, without warning, one of the most extraordinary pieces of political oratory in recent memory. Facing a trial before the House Ethics Committee, he gave a rambling, 30-minute speech attacking the committee, the Republicans, his fellow Democrats and even his own lawyers. It was less of a floor speech than a primal scream directed at those who say he should resign, or cut a deal with the committee, to spare his party a political debacle in November.
"Hey, if I was you, I may want me to go away too," he told his colleagues, referring to his ethics problems as a "so-called" scandal. "I am not going away. I am here."
This defiance was met by a smattering of applause in the full chamber.
"You're not going to tell me to resign to make you feel comfortable," Rangel informed his Democratic colleagues. "And for those who disagree, I'm sorry, but that's one thing you can't take away from me."
Midway through the diatribe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi left her seat and walked to the back of the chamber. When Rangel finally finished, a few dozen Democrats -- mostly members of the black caucus, New Yorkers and liberals -- stood to applaud. Most Democrats -- including Rep. David Obey (Minn.), the man who was leading the teachers-and-cops bill on the floor -- sat in silence. Democratic members, approached by reporters for comment as they left the chamber, looked stricken.
"Not now," said Rep. Louise Slaughter.
"I didn't really hear it," pleaded Rep. Howard Berman.
"What speech?" asked Rep. Steve Cohen.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz merely rolled her eyes and shook her head.
They had reason to feel ill. Rangel had trampled all over their plan to make the day about teachers and cops. In a larger sense, his determination to answer charges before November is guaranteed to crowd out any message the Democrats were hoping to deliver before voters punish them in the midterm elections.
Republicans were delighted with the problem Rangel had just caused for his party. "It was a Charlie Rangel moment, but it could have been a Jim Traficant moment," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) observed, recalling the Ohio Democrat's angry defiance as he was expelled eight years ago en route to prison.
The charges against Rangel aren't as heavy as those against Traficant, but there was something wild about the usually composed New Yorker. His jacket was open, his tie askew and his pocket handkerchief spilling from its place. His speech was, literally, a stemwinder: He stood back from the lectern, bending at the waist as he spoke without benefit of notes or apparent structure. He admitted that his lawyers begged him not to antagonize the ethics committee, and that his friends pleaded that he not give a speech on the floor.
But Rangel defied both. "I have a primary next month," he explained, and the charges won't be resolved by then. "Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November," the lawmaker begged, comparing his own ethics plight to the fiscal "emergency" that brought the House back into session. "What about me?" asked the 80-year-old Rangel, who said, "I don't want to die before the hearing."
Republicans were only too happy to lend Rangel their support. "It is certainly unfortunate that members of the Democratic leadership have allowed this to go on for two years without a resolution," Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence said as he left the chamber.
Rangel rambled through the allegations against him. Fundraising with official letterhead: "Grabbing the wrong stationery." The center named after him at the City University of New York: "A broken-down building." The office in the rent-controlled apartment: "The landlord has said he didn't treat me differently." The unpaid taxes on his Caribbean vacation place: "You'd have to be a tax expert" to get that right, said the deposed chairman of the tax-writing committee.
The diatribe was directed mostly at his own side of the aisle, where "no one is coming forward saying Rangel is not corrupt." He said he was told that his colleagues "all love you . . . but they love themselves better." He mocked those who turned against him for political expediency: "Do what you have to do."
Repeatedly, he dared his colleagues to vote on his fate. "Are you going to expel me from this body?" he demanded. "Are you going to say that while there's no evidence that I took a nickel, asked for a nickel, that there's no sworn testimony, no conflict, that I have to leave here?"
The angry lawmaker left his colleagues with two words: "Go home."