The 20-term Harlem congressman held a news conference on short notice, telling reporters, "My chairmanship is bringing so much attention to the press, and in order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter" asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the ethics committee completes its work."
The 79-year-old Rangel's decision was another jarring setback for President Barack Obama and majority Democrats in Congress, coming at a time when the party is scrambling to save sweeping health care overhaul legislation that has been pending on Capitol Hill for well over a year and still assessing a surging anti-incumbent fervor among the voters.
Republicans had been calling for Rangel to step aside since last year, when the House ethics panel expanded its investigation into his trips, assets and income, use of rent-controlled apartments in New York and his solicitation of contributions for university center to be named after him. After the panel released its findings last Friday on the Caribbean trips, Rangel started losing support among rank-and-file Democrats as well.
His departure from the Ways and Means chairmanship raised questions about succession.
Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark of California is the most senior Democrat on Ways and Means, but there's no certainty that Pelosi would name him to fill in for Rangel. Stark chairs the panel's health subcommittee.
Other senior Democrats on the committee include Reps. Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, John Lewis of Georgia and Richard Neal of Massachusetts.
Rangel is tied with Rep. Bill Young, a Florida Republican, for fourth place in congressional seniority.
The congressman made only a brief statement, telling reporters, "If you don't mind, I don't take questions." But he did say that'd told Pelosi "from the very, very beginning" that he was willing to step aside, at least temporarily.
Rangel, who met privately Tuesday with Pelosi, is accused by the House ethics panel of violating gift rules.
Party members want an untainted leader to be their chief negotiator in deciding the fate of billions of dollars in expiring tax breaks at year's end, including popular income tax deductions for sales and property taxes.
And Democratic incumbents facing tough races didn't want to fend off a Republican campaign focusing on Rangel's ethical cloud, especially after Pelosi, D-Calif., had promised to drain the swamp of ethical problems that plagued Republicans when they ran the House.
The ethics committee said Rangel violated standards of conduct by accepting 2007 and 2008 trips to Caribbean conferences that were financed by corporations. The committee said it could not prove whether Rangel knew of the corporate payments but concluded members of his staff knew about them - and the congressman was responsible for their actions.
Rangel said he didn't even have "constructive knowledge" of the corporate sponsorship of the trips and couldn't be held responsible for something staff members may have known but which he didn't.
In a separate case, the ethics committee is looking into Rangel's fundraising for a college center to be established in his name, in addition to other allegations - including belated financial disclosure filings that showed he previously failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments.