Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel this morning stepped down from his powerful chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.
"In the view of the fact that my chairmanship is bringing so much attention to the press, and in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections I have this morning sent a letter to speaker [Nancy] Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the ethics committee completes its work," he said at a brief press conference from Washington, D.C. at 9 a.m.
He declined to take any questions afterward, telling reporters, "I don't intend to be rude," but he didn't want to be distracted from work on the health bill and jobs bill.
Rangel had been struggling to hold on to his powerful tax-writing committee chairmanship, with the House speaker declining to endorse him and other Democrats clearly nervous about retaining a leader who has been accused of ethical misconduct.
"You bet your life," Rangel told reporters Tuesday night when asked whether he would remain as House Ways and Means chairman. However, his comment followed a private meeting with Speaker Pelosi, who refused to discuss the session — even though last week she said Rangel could continue in his position pending the outcome of a second ethics investigation of his conduct.
A number of Democrats had called for Rangel to relinquish his chairmanship, at least temporarily.
Rangel, accused by the House ethics committee last week of violating gift rules, plays a vital role for Democrats.
Party members want an untainted leader to be their chief negotiator in deciding the fate of billions of dollars in expiring tax breaks at year's end, including popular income tax deductions for sales and property taxes.
Democratic incumbents facing tough races don't want to fend off a Republican campaign focusing on Rangel's ethical cloud, especially after Pelosi promised to drain the swamp of ethical problems that plagued Republicans when they ran the House.
The ethics committee said Rangel violated standards of conduct by accepting 2007 and 2008 trips to Caribbean conferences that were financed by corporations. The committee said it could not prove whether Rangel knew of the corporate payments but concluded members of his staff knew about them — and the congressman was responsible for their actions.
Rangel said he didn't even have "constructive knowledge" of the corporate sponsorship of the trips and couldn't be held responsible for something staff members may have known but which he didn't.
In a separate case, the ethics committee is looking into Rangel's fundraising for a college center to be established in his name, in addition to other allegations — including belated financial disclosure filings that showed he previously failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments.
Republicans were planning to revive a resolution to force Rangel to step down, a tactic that has failed in the past but could pick up more support now that the ethics committee has accused Rangel of wrongdoing.