Rangel Safe For Now, But Trouble Looms

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) has persuaded House leaders to let him stay on as chairman of the powerhouse Ways and Means Committee — but he faces a new challenge from a Democratic Senate candidate who is rejecting a $10,000 Rangel contribution as tainted money.  

Late Tuesday, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, who’s running against indicted Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), announced he was donating Rangel’s cash to the YMCA in line with the “campaign’s practice ... of donating contributions to charity from politicians who are facing ethical or criminal charges.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee had demanded that Democratic incumbents and challengers disgorge themselves of hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions they have received from Rangel. Until Tuesday, only one had: Michael Skelly, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. John Culberson in the Houston area, returned a $2,000 contribution on July 23.

If Begich — running a high-profile race against an extremely vulnerable incumbent — is just the tip of a new iceberg, Rangel could find himself in a much more difficult position than he faces now.

The Ways and Means chairman has asked the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to look into his use of four rent-stabilized apartments in a Harlem high-rise, his use of congressional stationery to solicit money for an eponymous educational center in New York and, most recently, his failure to pay taxes or report rental income on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic.

Republicans in Alaska and elsewhere are trying to turn the 78-year-old Rangel into the poster child for ethical failures of the Democrat-controlled House — with Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) calling for the dean of New York’s delegation to step down as the head of Ways and Means.

Earlier Tuesday, Rangel received the explicit backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who defied calls from Republicans — and the New York Times editorial page — that Rangel be forced from his post.

Asked during a news conference Tuesday if she had ever called on Rangel to step down from the powerful tax-writing panel, the speaker said, “No.”

She added: “I see no reason why Mr. Rangel should step down. I have supported his call for the ethics committee to look into it.”

In a face-to-face meeting Monday night, Rangel told Pelosi he intended to fight for his job in the face of Republican attacks.

There are conflicting reports about what Pelosi hoped to accomplish at the sit-down. Several Democratic insiders said she had expected Rangel to step aside as committee chairman — although a senior aide insisted that was never the case.

“This decision is completely up to him, and there’s no indication he is [resigning his chairmanship], nor were we told he was going to,” said this leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think everybody thinks it’s a personal decision” for Rangel.

But for Pelosi, the Rangel situation poses a number of challenges. First and foremost, there is her personal relationship with Rangel, which Democrats described as strong despite high-profile policy fights between the two during the 110th Congress.

Pelosi also faces pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus not to be seen as shoving Rangel out the door. Pelosi was criticized heavily by CBC members when she pushed for the removal of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) from the Ways and Means Committee in early 2006. Pelosi’s judgment turned out to be right in that case — Jefferson was ultimately indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges — but the fight over Jefferson’s status will make Pelosi tread carefully in this situation.

On Tuesday morning, Rangel appeared before the CBC — and was treated to long proclamations of support and tw standing ovations.

“He has 100 percent of our support,” said Rep. Diane E. Watson (D-Calif.), who attended the meeting. “He is going to hang on; he should hang on; he will hang on. ... He’s done nothing wrong. The Republicans are hypocrites.”

Another CBC member put it more bluntly: “Nancy won’t challenge us on this, even if she wants to,” said the representative.

An aide to one CBC member called it “a question of equality,” noting that Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who is white, was not removed from his subcommittee chairmanship on the powerful Appropriations Committee even when he came under federal investigation over his business dealings with donors.

In addition, both Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) retained top committee posts on Appropriations and Natural Resources despite federal probes, which for CBC members means that Pelosi should not give in to GOP demands to oust Rangel.

Pelosi is relying heavily on the views of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) on whether Rangel retains the support of CBC members, which is clearly the case at this point.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has kept a relatively low profile since the scandal broke, deferring to Pelosi’s lead on this issue, according to several Democratic sources.

And Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who had several run-ins with CBC members when he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last cycle, has remained quiet as well, supporting Rangel’s continued tenure atop Ways and Means. Emanuel is a member of the panel, which makes the situation doubly awkward for him personally, Democratic sources note.

Rangel himself has been mum on his situation, even as he has sparred with reporters.

But the outspoken Harlem Democrat couldn’t hold his tongue when asked if he was remaining silent on advice of counsel — as his counsel has said.

“Nobody’s told me to not to talk,” Rangel told a reporter.

Martin Kady II and Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.
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