By CARL HULSE and DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
Mr. Rangel, for decades an institution both on Capitol Hill and in New York politics, said he was leaving the post to prevent Republicans from forcing his fellow Democrats to vote on ousting him from the position after he was admonished by the House ethics committee last week for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean.
The ethics panel is still investigating more serious accusations regarding Mr. Rangel’s fund-raising, his failure to pay federal taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and his use of four rent-stabilized apartments provided by a Manhattan real estate developer.
“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,” Mr. Rangel said.
He will remain a member of Congress and a member of the Ways and Means Committee. But in giving up the chairman’s gavel little more than three years after attaining it, he is leaving one of the most prominent positions in Congress, a post with great influence over tax, health care and other legislation and with the ability to command the attention — and campaign donations — of American business leaders.
The trappings are elaborate, with an ornate hearing room and stately offices. The stature of the post has occasionally overwhelmed those who hold it; two previous Democratic chairmen, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois and Wilbur D. Mills of Arkansas, left in disgrace.
Mr. Rangel’s departure sent Democrats looking for a successor at a critical time in the debate over Democratic plans for a health care overhaul. Some of the central elements of the health plan fall squarely under the purview of the tax-writing committee.
Representative Pete Stark, 78, a liberal California Democrat and a longtime health policy expert, is next in line by seniority. But some Democrats were anxious about that choice, citing possible health concerns, Mr. Stark’s brusque demeanor and his own recent brush with the ethics panel, which cleared him of a residential tax issue.
Democratic members of the committee were weighing the possibility of handing the gavel to another senior member, possibly Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, or even naming co-chairmen. In the meantime, Mr. Stark became the interim chairman.
Mr. Rangel’s ethics troubles presented a particularly delicate political issue for Democrats as they head into a difficult midterm election cycle. They campaigned hard against what they called the Republican “culture of corruption” in their 2006 takeover of the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to root out wrongdoing, providing an opening to Republicans who accused her of protecting Mr. Rangel.
“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,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said in a statement.
In making his announcement at a hastily called news conference on Wednesday morning, Mr. Rangel sought to portray his departure as temporary. But Republicans and Democrats said that given the political climate and the slap by the ethics committee, he was unlikely to be able to reclaim his leadership post.
Initially, Mr. Rangel would not discuss whether he still intended to seek re-election in November. He said only that he had served in his district in Harlem and most of Upper Manhattan for 40 years and would communicate with his constituents directly.
“I’ll be in touch with them,” he said. “I just don’t really believe that I should be talking at this point to the press when there’s just so many things to be done.”
Later, though, he said there was “no way that I can foresee anything” to stop him from running.
The House ethics committee last week admonished Mr. Rangel for violating Congressional gift rules by accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008. Seizing on that finding, Republicans planned on Wednesday to force a vote on removing him from the chairmanship.
Mr. Rangel had weathered such votes in the past year, but the ethics committee’s finding seriously undermined his Democratic support, and it appeared that he could lose the showdown. The prospect sent Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team searching for a way to spare lawmakers a potentially bruising fight over the chairman. Though he declared defiantly on Tuesday night that he would not step aside, Mr. Rangel arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday morning and did just that.
“I commend Chairman Rangel for his decades of leadership on jobs, health care and the most significant economic issues of the day,” Ms. Pelosi said.
Though his decision averted the floor fight, some of Mr. Rangel’s defenders said they found the outcome unfair and illustrative of the toxic partisan atmosphere in Congress.
“We remain concerned about the precedent this sets for the House of Representatives, that the political climate is such that a member would feel the need to step aside, even temporarily, during an ongoing proceeding,” Representative Barbara Lee of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement.
After Mr. Rangel first said he was stepping down temporarily, Republicans considered proceeding with their planned vote to call for his removal. But they sought and received a ruling from the presiding officer of the House on Wednesday afternoon that Mr. Rangel was considered to have resigned his chairmanship.
Facing an angry electorate, Democrats were becoming increasingly concerned about being tied to Mr. Rangel. The ethics report issued last week — with the potential for more revelations to come — was too much for some. They began going public with their opposition to the chairman, an unusual turn of events because junior members are typically fearful of angering such a senior member. Some members also began returning past donations from Mr. Rangel.
Some of his colleagues said they thought he had made the proper choice and was eliminating a distraction that had hindered the work of the committee.
“My North Carolina neighbors want a Congress that maintains the highest ethical standards,” said Representative Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat who sits on Mr. Rangel’s panel.
In Harlem, some of Mr. Rangel’s constituents voiced support for him. Dewey Morgan, 64, a retired therapist who has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said Mr. Rangel had made the right decision to give up his chairmanship “before it gets any worse.”
But he said Mr. Rangel should not be forced to resign from Congress. “He’s been in there for a long time, so he must have been doing something right,” he said.
Mona Newton, 55, who works at a Harlem car service and was born in Harlem Hospital, said it should be left to voters to judge the congressman. “Let him do out his term and let the people decide,” she said.
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 4, 2010