Rangel on the Brink

March 2, 2010

Charlie Rangel is on the verge of losing his Ways and Means gavel – by choice or by force, permanently or temporarily – and is taking the night to review his options, according to Democratic insiders.

As he emerged Tuesday night from a meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ceremonial office – sometimes known on Capitol Hill as “the woodshed” – the New York Democrat insisted that he is still the chairman of the powerful tax-writing committee.

But he couldn’t guarantee that would be the case by Wednesday.

“I can’t make all those promises at my age,” the 79-year-old Rangel said

Republicans plan to force a House floor vote this week on whether to remove Rangel from the chairmanship following last week’s finding that he violated House gift rules by accepting a corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean.

Democratic lawmakers and aides said Tuesday that the party’s most vulnerable incumbents are not willing to risk the electoral fallout that would come from standing by the 39-year House veteran. If all House members vote and all 178 Republicans favor removing Rangel, the GOP would need 39 Democrats to turn against the chairman to win the vote.

Plans for Rangel’s succession already were being discussed, with Democratic aides rating the chances of the five Democrats who are next in line in seniority: Pete Stark of California, Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, John Lewis of Georgia and Richard Neal of Massachusetts.

As late as Monday, Rangel had seemed steady, with Democratic leaders insisting they would wait to see if the ethics committee took further action against him based on a series of other allegations of improper behavior.

But the tide turned quickly on Tuesday, as politically vulnerable Democratic lawmakers – and even some who sit in safe districts – called for him to step down, both publicly and privately.

“The dam broke today,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Rangel suffered a significant blow Tuesday afternoon when Rep. Artur Davis – a member of both the Ways and Means Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus who’s running for governor back home in Alabama – issued a statement in which he said the chairman “should do the right thing and step aside.”

Rumors of Rangel’s immediate removal coursed through the Capitol Tuesday evening after a Democratic leadership meeting but before Rangel gathered with Pelosi and their respective aides to discuss the situation in her office.

Rangel said afterward that he still held the gavel, but Pelosi offered only a terse “no comment” when asked if her longtime ally would remain chairman.

In truth, Rangel has not made up his mind and planned to spend the rest of Tuesday night canvassing advisers and talking to friends about his next move, according to a person close to the veteran New York Democrat.
White House political director Patrick Gaspard has been monitoring events on Capitol Hill, but the Obama administration has not expressed a preference in the Rangel matter.

Rangel found support among most of his colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee and in the Congressional Black Caucus. Several CBC members said those coming out against Rangel are doing so because they face tough races in November.

Indeed, many of Rangel’s fellow Democratic lawmakers said it was time for him to fall on his sword for the good of the party and the politically endangered incumbents who are taking hits from opponents over the Rangel imbroglio.

“I think Charlie should do the right thing and step down,” said one senior Democratic lawmaker. “We expected that out of Tom DeLay. He should do the honorable thing … There’s no double standard.”

That lawmaker echoed the sentiments of a growing number of Democrats who issued public calls for Rangel to step aside – or vowed to vote him out if he doesn’t.

Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Artur Davis (Ala.), Bobby Bright (Ala.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Mike Quigley (Ill.), Betty Sutton (Ohio), Harry Mitchell (Ariz.), Zack Space (Ohio), Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), John Adler (N.J.), Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Jim Hines (Conn.) and Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.) have said publicly – either personally or through aides — that they plan to join Republicans in voting to remove Rangel.

Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) has voted with Republicans to replace Rangel in the past but has not issued any public statement at this point.

Another lawmaker told POLITICO that he will vote against Rangel if the chairman doesn’t step down voluntarily first – but that he wants to give Rangel the chance to make that decision on his own.

The perilous position Democrats face in November is hardly the only factor.

“The more glaring factor is that they found him guilty of an ethical violation,” the aide said, referring to last week’s ethics committee finding that Rangel violated House rules by taking corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean. “Frontline Democrats are vulnerable to the slightest things and being associated with someone accused of an ethical violation is not what we need.”

The aide said that it would behoove Democrats if Rangel would step down on his own without members having to take the vote.

“If Democrats want to be taken seriously on accountability and transparency, he has to step down,” the aide said.

The chief of staff to one lawmaker who is not in danger of losing to a Republican this year said dissatisfaction in the Democratic Caucus is broad.

“It’s getting ugly,” the chief of staff said. “Nobody is in a comfortable spot right now.”

For some lawmakers, the specter of further judgments against Rangel is a motivating factor. The ethics committee is investigating a series of allegations against him and the matter for which he was found in violation of the House rules last week is viewed by some to be one of the lesser charges.

Josh Kraushaar, Glenn Thrush and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.