Democrats' ethics problems spark GOP election hopes

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Charlie Rangel endured one of those unflattering television moments that political opponents love when a reporter approached him earlier this week and asked how he allegedly had failed to include hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal assets on congressional disclosure forms.

"You shouldn't be that way, you know that?" a scolding Rangel, D-N.Y., told MSNBC's Betsy Klein, waving papers at her as the camera rolled. "I know it's your job, and I don't blame you, but it's really so rude."

Rangel, the powerful chairman of the tax-writing House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, is feeling the heat from Republican efforts to make him a symbol of Democratic Party ethical wrongdoing, an issue that the GOP hopes will help it regain a sizeable number of seats in next year's mid-terms elections.

"Charlie looks like an easy target, a good villain," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and a Republican who voted against the Rangel resolution, preferring that the ethics investigation to take its course. "Some of it is unfair, but that's politics. I'd say swing voters and independent voters pay attention to this type of thing."

The Rangel matter is one of at least 30 investigations of Democratic and Republican lawmakers underway by the standards of official conduct committee, a secretive, bipartisan, internal affairs division in the House.

Other Democrats under investigation include Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill. Waters is under scrutiny for her husband's links to a bank that received federal bailout funds. Jackson is under investigation to determine whether he or his representatives tried to gain the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama by promising to raise money for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Federal prosecutors have been busy policing Congress, as well. Former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was convicted on bribery and corruption charges after FBI agents found $90,000 in cash hidden in his freezer.

Prosecutors are also probing Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. They're looking into a former lobbying firm with connections to Murtha whose clients had remarkable success winning earmarks from Murtha's committee.

House Republicans forced a floor vote last week on a resolution demanding that Rangel step down as Ways and Means chairman while the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct investigates allegations against him that range from using rent-controlled property in New York as a campaign office to failing to report income on tax forms.

The resolution failed on a 246-153 party-line vote, but it forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to back her beleaguered chairman publicly and allowed Republicans to ask what happened to Pelosi's campaign promise to "drain the swamp" of ethically-challenged lawmakers.

Some pollsters and political experts said they don't believe ethics will be a pivotal issue in the November 2010 elections in the way that the economy, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and health care will be.

Repeatedly raising alleged Democratic ethics woes could help in a tight congressional district race or two, however, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"It doesn't hurt," Miringoff said. "If it (ethics situation) is not resolved, it can stay as an open wound. A one-day story turns into a one-week story, which turns into a one-year story. And that's what Democrats have to worry about."

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., sees parallels between what the Democrats are experiencing on ethics and what his party endured in 2006.

Davis, a former chair of the House Committee on Government Reform, said he was so worried about the ethics scandals that enveloped former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Tex., and Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., that he wrote -- but pocketed -- a letter to the House Republican leadership warning them that these problems could hurt the party at the polls.

Davis envisions similar troubles for Democrats.

"Unemployment is still high, so issues like corruption become exaggerated in this atmosphere, and that could pose a problem for Democrats," he said. "Corruption can't be a game-changer, but it usually works with other items. And you've got all the makings -- a year from now, the Democrats will have all these problems: It will be (President Barack) Obama's wars, Obama's economy, Obama's corruption."

Some Democrats, however, have rejected that notion and rallied around Rangel and other members under ethical clouds. Pelosi hasn't pushed for Rangel's removal as Ways and Means chair because, her aides say, she wants the ethics investigation process to unfold fully.

Other Democrats said they don't want to give in to what they think is GOP grandstanding.

"They are upset that some of their members in the past were convicted and, as a result, aren't in Congress anymore," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who joined other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in signing a letter to Pelosi in support of Rangel. "Now, they're playing politics, trying to make something out of nothing."

Some Democrats and their allies, however, are nervous. Lori Edwards, a Democratic congressional candidate running in a Republican-leaning Florida district, returned a $1,000 campaign contribution from a political action committee of Pennsylvania's Murtha, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations' defense subcommittee, the newspaper Politico reported.

Political foes and watchdog groups have raised questions about Murtha's use of earmarks and campaign contributions.


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