Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has been forced to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, after he was admonished for taking conference trips funded by corporations. The House ethics committee continues to investigate allegations against him — all during a political year that already looks tough for Democrats.
A few years ago Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives in a swirl of ethical scandals. Now ethics problems are hitting Democrats.
Powerful Rep. Charles Rangel of New York has been forced to step down from his chairmanship, after he was publicly admonished by the House ethics committee. And there could be more bad news for Rangel, in an election year that's already looking tough for Democrats.
It is an extremely deft politician who can frame a public admonishment as a noble gesture.
"This country and this Congress has been very good to me," Rangel began. "It seems to me that I should not do anything that would impede the success of other Democrats — they should be so lucky as I am."
Rangel was admonished by the ethics committee last week for taking conference trips to the Caribbean that were funded by corporations. Allegations have been under investigation for months, and until now, Democrats had protected Rangel. But with Friday's report, and continuing ethics investigations, Rangel started to hear calls from his colleagues to step down from the chairmanship.
At a closed party caucus meeting Wednesday, Rangel gave a speech that fellow Democrats called poignant and heart-rending.
Caucus Chairman John Larson came out of the meeting saying Democrats have a great sensitivity about Rangel, who has given a lot of service to the nation.
"Please allow him and us the opportunity to go through this in a very thoughtful manner that takes in consideration the strong feelings — I know that doesn't happen often in this town — that take place and the bonds and relationships that people have amongst one another."
Rangel is in his 20th term. He raises and donates money to many colleagues, and he is praised for his work as chairman of Ways and Means. That committee has weighty responsibilities — right now it's in the midst of negotiating the health care overhaul and a jobs package.
"We are proceeding in a considered and focused way," Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said. "We believe this will not in any way adversely affect our schedule, and we're working with the White House, and with the Senate and with the House."
On the Republican side, party leaders already are pressuring Rangel's friends to give back his donations. And House Republican leader John Boehner seems poised to use this as a political opportunity.
"The ethics committee has spoken," Boehner said. "The ethics committee has found that Mr. Rangel violated the rules of the House and he's been admonished."
Republicans are on the warpath, hoping to win back moderate and conservative districts that went Democratic in November 2008. And more rulings are expected from the ethics committee in its ongoing investigation into Rangel.
That's why Rep. Gene Taylor is relieved. He's from a moderate district in Mississippi, and he was one of the Democrats who publicly called for Rangel to step down.
"This will free him up to have the time to address these allegations," Taylor said. "If it's cleared up, he gets his job back."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats must show that they're better at running Congress than the Republicans were, Taylor said.
"Ms. Pelosi said that she would hold us members and this Congress to a higher standard and I think it is the right thing to do," Taylor added.
And no Democrats want to play defense right now when the political conditions for them already look poor.
So perhaps Rangel's fall on his sword will help — rather than hurt — his status among Democrats.
"I love my country, I love the Congress and I love the Democrats more, and so any member who thought that my chairmanship would impede their election, then I think that should take care of the political problem," Rangel said.
At least until the ethics committee rules on the next allegations against Rangel. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.