A subdued Charles Rangel started to tell colleagues Wednesday that he expects them to be with him only as long as they can.
It’s a favorite phrase of the ethics-embattled New York Democrat that means one politician shouldn’t sink his or her own political fortunes to help another.
“I know you love me,” Rangel quipped to one junior Democrat. “But love yourself more.”
Not even his colleagues know what Rangel will do Thursday, when the House ethics committee reveals what is expected to be a scathing slate of allegations of wrongdoing to open the congressional version of a trial.
Rangel declined to comment on the specifics of his case, but his remarks suggest that he knows more calls for his resignation may be coming. Despite that possibility, he was prepared for a fight, according to some fellow black Democrats.
There’s a lot riding on Rangel’s decisions — for him, his party and the integrity of the institution he has served in since 1971.
“I think he’s going to have to go, maybe tomorrow,” said a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who asked not to be named.
Indeed, many colleagues said privately — and one has publicly — that he should resign from his seat in the House, a move that would put him outside the reach of the ethics committee. More important, it would save his Democratic counterparts the pain of a protracted political scandal brushing up against the midterm elections.
If he doesn’t resign, Democratic lawmakers and aides said, he’ll very likely face a cavalcade of public calls for his resignation once the ethics committee’s “Statement of Alleged Violation” is made public. Rangel could also announce he’s retiring at the end of this term, although that probably would not prevent the ethics committee from releasing its report.
Republicans have made his campaign contributions to other lawmakers an issue in races across the country, and they point to him as evidence that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House isn’t clean.
Rangel knows it’s just business for Democrats who have to come out against him: He advised the same junior Democrat to “protect yourself.”
But failing an eleventh-hour plea deal with the ethics committee or his resignation, Rangel would make a public stand by fighting the ethics findings in a hearing room in the Capitol Visitor Center, deep beneath the East Front Plaza of the Capitol. A deal with the committee seems unlikely, in part because it would require at least one Republican on the committee to agree to a settlement. On top of that, a deal is unlikely because Rangel could potentially expose himself to legal jeopardy if he admits wrongdoing on certain allegations.
“He has to decide whether he wants his legacy to be a very embarrassing trial before the ethics committee,” said Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, a black Democrat who called for Rangel to give up the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, on which both men serve, after an earlier ethics finding against Rangel.
Some Democrats fear that if Rangel chooses to go through with the trial, he will pit politically vulnerable lawmakers against the CBC, which Rangel helped create.
CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) Monday cautioned Democrats not to “rush to judgment” in the case. Other black lawmakers have said Rangel shouldn’t be denied basic justice.
“I believe so,” Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said, when asked if Rangel deserves a chance to defend himself before the ethics panel.
Colleagues said there are few, if any, fellow politicians who would be able to sway his decision making in the matter.
Realizing the factions within the party, Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress have done their best to steer clear of the Rangel situation.
Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is responsible for reelecting Democrats as chairman of his party’s campaign arm in the House, spoke with Rangel Monday night to lay out his observations.
If anyone is in a position to deliver Rangel a message, it could be Rep. Joseph Crowley, an Irish-Catholic Rangel protégé from Queens who serves on Ways and Means, according to lawmakers who know both men well.
Crowley would never abandon Rangel, they said, but Rangel values his political judgment.
There are scores of lawmakers who have held back calls for him to resign out of respect for his service in Congress, several Democrats told POLITICO. But that will change once the charges are made public, they said.
If Rangel goes through with the hearing, congressional observers will get to see something new to the process — an “organizational meeting” of the eight-member ethics subcommittee charged with adjudicating the case against him.
The last open ethics committee hearings took place in 2002, when then-Rep. Jim Traficant of Ohio was expelled from the House after his conviction on federal corruption charges.
But this meeting is unlike those proceedings, since Traficant was already on his way to prison.
The “Statement of Alleged Violation” will spell out the findings of a two-year probe by a special panel of the ethics committee into Rangel’s personal finances. That bipartisan committee has already found “substantial reason to believe” that Rangel broke House rules.
Democrats and Republican aides expect California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the full ethics committee and the top Democrat on the subcommittee that will conduct the proceedings, to make a statement, as will Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
Ethics experts, however, did not believe that Rangel or his attorneys would be allowed to speak, since this is just the start of a much longer process, one that could last weeks or months, if Rangel sees it all the way through until the end.
Rangel famously wrote in his autobiography, “I haven’t had a bad day since” the Korean War, but the ethics trial might change that sentiment.
Jake Sherman contributed to this report.