WASHINGTON — Rep. Charles Rangel's decision to step aside as the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee not only could be the beginning of the end of his storied career, but also gives Republicans fresh ammunition to use against Democrats in November's elections.
Rangel, D-N.Y., said he was inching out of the spotlight so his ethics troubles wouldn't hurt Democrats in the midterm elections. Democrats now control 254 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and polling finds that dozens of incumbents are vulnerable.
Still, Rangel's decision didn't stop Republicans from hammering away at Democrats on ethics lapses, much as Democrats pummeled the GOP about ethics when Republicans controlled the House from 1995 to 2007.
"In order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the ethics committee completes its work," Rangel said Wednesday at a hastily arranged Capitol Hill news conference.
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With the House ethics committee's recent public admonishment of Rangel for taking corporate-paid trips to the Caribbean, and with other investigations open into alleged violations, the 20-term Democrat has become a symbol of ethical lapses at a time when Democrats are running scared for re-election.
House Republicans challenged Rangel's "temporary" leave of absence. They won a ruling on the House floor that Rangel's resignation must be permanent because there is no provision for temporary leave of a chairmanship.
Under normal House rules, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., is the Democrat in line to be the new Ways and Means chairman, but Democrats could buck seniority rules and choose someone else, congressional officials said.
Even after Rangel's announcement, Republicans continued to blast Democrats on ethics. The National Republican Congressional Committee released a statement accusing vulnerable Democrats in 55 districts of accepting "tainted" campaign contributions from Rangel and challenging them to give the money back.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called Rangel's resignation a "sad day" for the House, but quickly added that "it's disappointing that Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leaders let this situation go on this long, especially after promising to preside over the most honest, open and ethical Congress in history."
The month before the 2006 midterm elections, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was then House minority leader, laid out an ambitious set of initiatives tapping into public outrage at congressional corruption symbolized by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Democrats pledged to "drain the swamp" of unethical practices during the previous 12 years of Republican House control. Pelosi pledged that in the first 100 days after the new House would convene in 2007, new rules would be put in effect to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation."
Democrats won control of the House, and a few days after the election, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the ethics measures were "total crap."
Murtha, who died on Feb. 8, and other Democrats became embroiled in their own ethics controversy. Last week, the House ethics committee cleared Murtha and six other members of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee of taking campaign money in exchange for favors.
The panel studied reports that the lawmakers had influenced earmarks, or special projects, for clients of the one-time lobbying firm PMA Group. The committee said the members were more interested in the local impact of the projects, not campaign money.
Rangel, 79, had his own problems. The ethics committee publicly admonished him last week for taking two corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008, though it said it had no proof that he knew about the corporate funding.
He's still under ethics investigation for a host of alleged violations, ranging from failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets to the use of several rent-controlled apartments in New York. Others include fundraising efforts for a center that bears his name at New York's City College and failing to pay taxes on rental property he owns in the Dominican Republic.
The allegations have clouded a storied political career that began 40 years ago when Rangel defeated legendary firebrand Adam Clayton Powell, the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. Rangel served on the House Judiciary Committee that conducted impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, view Rangel as a lovable, colorful figure. In the end, however, nervous Democrats couldn't rally around the colleague they affectionately call "Charlie."
"I'm sad about it because Charlie is a dear friend, a mentor and a brother," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y. "But I respect his decision."
Rangel remains a member of the House, but some experts said that he might find it challenging staying there without the lofty title of "Mr. Chairman" and the power to deliver goods and services to voters back home.
"Kings don't come back as princes," said Mitchell Moss, an urban policy and planning professor at New York University. "If he isn't chairman, he will face real problems locally."
Rangel already has a Democratic challenger: Vince Morgan, a 40-year-old community banker who worked on Rangel's 2002 re-election campaign.
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