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Rangel Blames Politics, but Politics Saved Him

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., waits for the elevator as he leaves his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. AP

After 40 years in Congress, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was censured Thursday by his peers for 11 violations of House ethics rules. With the censure, Rangel joined the same page in the history books as 22 other House members, including Gerry Studds and Daniel Crane who were the last members to be censured in 1983, for sexual misconduct with House pages.

These were just some of Rangel's offenses that the ethics committee found him guilty of committing: Failing to pay back taxes on income from a villa in the Dominican Republic; soliciting donations to a school of public service bearing his name from donors with business before his committee; using congressional resources, such as letterhead, to solicit those donations; improperly using a rent-controlled apartment in New York as a campaign office.

Two weeks ago the committee recommended censure to the full House of Representatives which is just one punishment away from expulsion.

Rangel's defenders argued that the punishment was too harsh, that while Rangel, who was chair of the Ways and Means committee in charge of writing tax policy, was careless with his own finances, he was not corrupt.

"The punishment does not meet the crime and we just think this is way overboard," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) to reporters just off the House floor shortly before debate on the censure resolution.

Members of the New York delegation and Congressional Black Caucus lobbied Democrats to vote for an amendment that would reduce the punishment from censure to reprimand. The difference would be that Rangel would have been reprimanded in writing instead of by the speaker of the House of Representatives who would read the censure to Rangel while he stood in the well of the House.

The two-year ethics investigation has been trying for Rangel, even though he requested the investigation to clear his name after damaging news reports. Rangel spent $2 million on lawyers over the past two years but was unable to afford representation by the time his ethics trial began. He lost weight. He was dogged by reporters following his every move for months. He lost his powerful chairmanship on Ways and Means.

The lawmaker from Harlem with the gravelly voice, sharp suits and sunny disposition in the past seemed tired and weary as he came to the House floor.

"First, let me apologize to this body for putting you in this very awkward position today," Rangel said. He then told his story about being wounded on the battlefield during the Korean War. He earned a Purple Heart for bravery.

He made his case that censure was too strong a punishment for his mistakes given that previous censures were largely for bribery or sexual misconduct. "If you're breaking new ground, I ask for fairness," he pleaded to his colleagues.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) explained in her opening remarks on the floor that it was not one action, but that the committee "found his actions and accumulation of actions reflected poorly on the institution of the House and brought discredit to the House."

Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) from the ethics committee zeroed in on Rangel's unpaid taxes. "The committee found that Mr. Rangel failed to pay his income taxes for 17 years. And this, while serving as chairman of the committee that writes the tax laws of the nation," McCaul said. "What kind of message does this send to the average working man or woman who plays by the rules and struggles every day to pay their own taxes?"

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) offered the amendment to reduce the punishment to a written reprimand. Rangel's friends did not succeed. The amendment failed and when it came time to vote, the House voted overwhelmingly, 333 to 79, to censure Rangel.

"Will the gentleman from New York, Mr. Rangel, kindly appear in the well?" said speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rangel walked dutifully to the well to stand while Pelosi read the short censure resolution. "By the adoption of House resolution, the House is resolved that Representative Charles Rangel of New York be censured," she read solemnly, hardly looking at her longtime friend and colleague as he stood below her.

After the public scolding that he tried so hard to avoid, Rangel addressed his colleagues again and blamed politics. "We do know that we are a political body," Rangel said. "And even though it is painful to accept this vote, I am fully aware that this vote reflects perhaps the thinking not just of the members, but the political side and the constituency of this body."

In the end, politics is what ultimately saved Rangel the loss of his seat in Congress. Two years, $2 million and one censure later, Friday will be very much like Wednesday for Rangel. While many of the Democrats who voted to censure Rangel are losing their jobs at the end of this year, Rangel's constituents reelected him to a 21st term with 80 percent of the vote in November.

Jill Jackson is a CBS News Capitol Hill Producer. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow her on Twitter.