Rangel Still Has the Gavel

By John Bresnahan and Jonathan Allen
|  Monday, Mar 1, 2010  |  Updated 7:00 AM EDT
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Rangel Still Has the Gavel

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Sorry Charlie still holds the gavel.

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Charles Rangel met with New York Democrats on Saturday in an effort to save embattled Gov. David Paterson. But the meeting could just as easily have been about Rangel himself.

The House ethics committee decision to admonish Rangel for taking two corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean has turned up the heat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman — with even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that Rangel’s actions don’t pass the “smell test.”

Several House Democrats have now joined Republicans in calling for Rangel to lose his gavel, and The New York Times has chimed in, saying the “arrogance” Rangel showed in the wake of Thursday’s ethics committee ruling provides “one more reason” for Pelosi to “stop protecting him and relieve him of his crucial role as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.”

In an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Pelosi acknowledged that “what Mr. Rangel has been admonished for is not good.”

But the speaker also said that Rangel’s participation in the corporate-sponsored trips wasn’t something that had “jeopardized our country in any way,” and she made it clear that she has no intention of taking away Rangel’s chairmanship unless and until the ethics committee determines that he’s guilty of a number of ethics violations it’s currently investigating.

“Well, let’s ... why don’t we just give him a chance to hear what the independent, bipartisan [ethics committee says] — they work very hard to reach their conclusions, and we ... obviously, there’s more to come here,” Pelosi said.

The Caribbean trips were just a small part of Rangel’s case before the ethics committee. Over the past 18 months, the committee has been investigating a number of issues involving his personal finances, including Rangel’s failure to report hundreds of thousands of dollars on income and assets; his fundraising on behalf of the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College in New York; his use of multiple, rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem; and his failure to pay taxes on a Dominican Republic vacation home.

Pelosi said she hopes the committee will resolve those issues “soon,” but she cautioned that the panel is “independent” and works at “their own pace.”

For his part, Rangel said he was “exonerated” by the ethics committee because the panel found no “substantial evidence” that he knew the trips were corporate-funded, despite the existence of internal documents showing that his staff was aware of that fact.

A fellow House Democrat said Rangel is “dug in” and “not going to give up anything.”

And even as Rangel held a press conference to assert his innocence last week, his lawyers went on the offensive, slamming the ethics panel’s decision as “wrong on the facts and unsupported by the law.” 

Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that, by leaving Rangel in charge at Ways and Means, Pelosi is breaking the promise she made to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” Cantor said of Rangel. “I called for his stepping down before even this finding, and now I do think it’s time.”

So far, only a handful of House Democrats have publicly called on Rangel to step aside, including Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, Mike Quigley of Illinois and Bobby Bright of Alabama. He still retains the support of his senior colleagues, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus, though that backing has been eroded by the ethics committee’s rebuke.

Rangel “commands the respect that comes from treating people with respect,” said a senior Democratic lawmaker. “If it was someone who was seen as a little bit nasty or not the nicest of guys, it might be a little different.”

When asked whether Rangel should give up his Ways and Means gavel, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that wasn’t necessary.

“It would be disproportionate” based on what the ethics committee found, said Van Hollen. “The ethics committee needs to move expeditiously to review and render judgment on the remaining issues before them.”

Van Hollen, however, deflected questions about whether Rangel’s ethical problems would become a problem for Democratic candidates and incumbents this fall, repeating the mantra that Rangel “did not knowingly violate any rule, he is repaying the cost of the trip, and the other issues remain under review.”

Ethics experts cautioned against reading too much into the committee’s ruling on the trips —saying it may or may not be a sign of how members are leaning on the other Rangel-related issues before them.

Rob Walker, former chief counsel and staff director for both the House and the Senate ethics committees, said that Thursday’s ruling on Rangel “may be a kind of middle ground” for panel members who differed on his level of culpability.

Walker said he reviewed the ethics committee’s report on the Carib News Foundation, the group that sponsored the Caribbean trips, searching for signals on how the panel would rule on the other allegations against Rangel, but didn’t find them.

“If there are any tea leaves in this report ... I don’t see those tea leaves or I can’t read those tea leaves,” Walker said.

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