In a statement released late Wednesday, Pelosi said she is prepared to wait for the House ethics committee to complete its investigation of Rangel’s personal finances, which is slated to occur before the official end of the 110th Congress in early January.
But Pelosi also signaled that she does not want Rangel’s problems hanging over House Democrats indefinitely, and some action on the embattled congressman is expected early next year, maybe even before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office.
“In September, I called on the House Ethics Committee to look into issues raised by news reports on Chairman Rangel. This followed up on the chairman’s own request for an investigation by the Committee,” Pelosi said in her statement.
“I have been assured the report will be completed by the end of this session of Congress, which concludes on Jan. 3, 2009. I look forward to reviewing the report at that time.”
The uncomfortable state of limbo with one of the most senior chairmen has provided an opening Republicans and outside ethics experts to criticize Pelosi’s standards and question her pledge to “drain the swamp.” Democratic leaders and rank and file members have also been remarkably silent about what to do with Rangel.
The House ethics committee was already investigating Rangel’s myriad financial disclosure problems, but the latest revelation from the New York Times that Rangel met with donors to the Charles B. Rangel Center at City College of New York who also had tax policy business before Congress has given yet another opening for Republican attacks.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner has already made two privileged resolutions calling for censure and Rangel’s removal from the committee, and Republicans will continue the attacks in January. On both these resolutions, Democrats have backed Rangel and voted against the measures, but that will be more difficult in the next Congress.
“The allegations in the New York Times story, if true, raise the stakes in regards to Rangel’s ethical lapses because they involve official government acts and a quid pro quo on behalf of a donor,” said a senior House GOP aide. “Speaker Pelosi has a real choice to make. Does she really want to entrust Rangel to move Obama’s agenda? If she continues to do nothing, then Rangel’s problem will soon become President-elect Obama’s problems too.”
The Times reported on Tuesday that Rangel, who was using his office to help raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center, met with Eugene M. Isenberg, CEO of Nabors Industries, an oil-drilling company, about donating to the center on the same day in Feb. 2007 that the Ways and Means Committee was meeting on a tax loophole that saved Nabors Industries tens of millions of dollars annually. Rangel opposed removing the loophole, and Isenberg eventually pledged to give $1 million to the Rangel Center.
Rangel and Isenberg flatly denied there was any link between the donation and Rangel stance on the tax loophole, and Rangel’s lawyer said that the lawmaker did not know about Isenberg’s donation to the Rangel Center until a year later.
"At no time — ever — did I entertain, promote, or secure a tax break or any special favor for anyone as an inducement or reward for a contribution to the City College of New York," Rangel said in a statement released by his office.
But if Pelosi decides to make a move against Rangel, she could find serious resistance from the Congressional Black Caucus, an influential force within the House Democratic Caucus. When Pelosi forced Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), an African-American, off the Ways and Means panel in early 2006, it led to a huge fight with the CBC, and any battle over Rangel’s gavel would be much tougher.
“The CBC would scream bloody murder,” noted one top Democratic aide. “[Pelosi] is going to want to avoid that at all costs.”
In an interview with WCBS-TV, Rangel said he would give up his gavel if believed his ethical problems were harming the Ways and Means Committee, but he does not think that is the case.
"If I thought for one minute that I would be bringing disgrace to the committee, to the Congress or the country, I would step aside," Rangel said.
Rangel also said he hoped the ethics committee probe is over by early next year so he can work on tax-cut proposals to be offered by President-elect Barack Obama.
"I got to be boomin' with Obama in January, so I can't have this hangin' around," Rangel added.
Rangel is being investigated by the ethics committee on several fronts related to his personal finances, as well as his fundraising efforts on behalf of the Rangel Center. Rangel sent out dozens of letters on congressional stationery to potential donors for the center, and he has helped raise more than $10 million so far.
The recent fight between Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) for the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee might also help Rangel. With Democratic nerves still raw over that controversy, Democratic aides say Pelosi may not want to oust another high-profile chairman.
“I think the Dingell thing is good for Rangel,” said one Democratic insider. “She’s not going to want to be seen getting rid of two old chairmen in this short a period of time.
Rangel is also insulated on Ways and Means by the lawmakers behind him on the dais. California Rep. Pete Stark, the next most senior Democrat on Ways and Means, is a long-shot to ever wield the gavel because his far-left politics and unpredictable outbursts make him a liability for party leaders, according to Democratic insiders. Likewise, Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin and Washington Rep. Jim McDermott wouldn't be Democratic leaders' first choice to helm the powerful tax-writing panel. This could force party brass to upend the seniority system to replace Rangel with a member more to their liking, like Georgia Rep. John Lewis or Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal.
Pelosi also has breathing room within her own caucus. Republicans tried to turn Rangel into a campaign issue during the recent elections, calling on Democratic challengers and incumbents to return the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that Rangel has handed out in recent years, but Democrats largely ignored this effort.
Democrats have countered Republican attacks on Rangel by pointing out that Boehner has not ousted Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) from high-ranking committee posts despite ethics allegations and FBI investigations of both men.
And then there is the personal factor. Rangel “remains very much in the inner circle,” a person close to Rangel told Politico earlier this week.
At some point, however, Pelosi may have to make a move, especially once the ethics panel wraps up its inquiry. Democratic leadership aides have privately criticized how Rangel has handled the ongoing ethics controversy, and Rangel won’t be able to count on winning over Democrats on the next Republican resolution calling for censure.
“If I were Charlie, I wouldn’t count on a floor vote to save me this time — unless he’s got enough tax breaks to give everybody a billion,” one Democratic aide said.