By Susan Crabtree - 12/02/10 10:50 PM EST
The House censured Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) Thursday evening, a dramatic downfall for the once powerful chairman of the Ways and Means panel.
In an overwhleming vote of 333-79, the House handed down its steepest form of punishment short of expulsion to one of the most senior and beloved members of the House.
Rangel, a 40-year veteran of the House, is only the 23rd lawmaker to be censured in the history of the House and the fifth in the last 100 years.
“Will the gentleman, Mr. Rangel, kindly appear in the well,” Pelosi said, before reading the censure resolution.
At one point during the brief censure, allies such as Crowley and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) got up and walked towards Rangel and it appeared as if all of his supporters would gather with him in the well. But Pelosi’s statement was too short to allow the full effect of what would have been a dramatic show of force for their longtime friend and colleague.
Rangel then spoke to his colleagues, reassuring them he will not let the punishment damper his outlook.
“I am fully aware that this vote reflects the political tide and .... the constituency of this body,” he said. “I know in my heart that I'm not going to be judged by this Congress ... but by my life, my activities and my contributions to society.
“I just want all of you to know that in my heart that I truly feel good,” he added, repeating his oft-used refrain, “Compared to where I have been, I have never had a bad day since.”
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other senior allies formed a line to offer hugs after he spoke. Rangel smiled and laughed as he greeted them.
At a short but rambling press conference in the Capitol after the vote, Rangel wavered back and forth between remorse and defiance, attrition and rebellion. He offered apologies for mistakes but not for challenging the charges for the last two years.
The votes divided the caucus on racial and regional lines, with a majority of the black caucus and New York delegation voting with Rangel, as well as a handful of lawmakers who worked alongside Rangel on Ways and Means before he was forced to give up the gavel earlier this year.
Before the censure vote, an amendment to reduce the punishment to a reprimand was set aside in a 146-267 vote. More Democrats, 143-105, supported reducing the punishment to a reprimand.
The older “bulls” of the House who have served with Rangel for decades tended to vote with their longtime colleague along with some long-serving conservative Blue Dog Democrats. Several prominent California Democrats, such as Reps. George Miller (Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), voted against downgrading the penalty to reprimand.
Pelosi did not cast a vote on censure, but several members of the Democratic leadership team voted for the tough punishment.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) voted for censure. Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who will serve as vice chairman of the Democratic caucus in the next Congress, voted against censure.
Several lawmakers representing a cross-section of the caucus spoke against censure before the vote, including Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), John Tanner (Tenn.), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), Charles Gonzales (Texas) Jerry Nadler (N.Y.), G.K. Butterfield (N.C.) and Republican Rep. Peter King (N.Y.).
King was one of three Republicans who voted for a reprimand just before the censure vote. The other two were Reps. Don Young (Alaska) and Ron Paul (Texas).
Only King and Young voted against censure in the final vote.
“I don’t believe the findings warrant the censure,” King said before the votes. “Censure is a very extreme penalty. If expulsion is [like] the death penalty, censure is life in prison.”
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the ethics committee, and Republicans on the panel would not back down, arguing that Rangel had several chances to handle the matter differently and agree to settle for a reprimand, which the panel offered him back in July. Instead, Rangel chose to fight and opt for public trial.
Lofgren dismissed claims by Rangel supporters that history and precedent did not support such a severe punishment, noting that some censures in the House’s early history were leveled for insulting the Speaker and for using “unparliamentary” language.
“It’s important to hold members to a higher standard [than the House has done in recent years],” she said. “Mr. Rangel himself has said we need higher standards.”
“It’s a sad day but a necessary day…,” she said. “It’s an important vote for this institution and how we are seen by our employers, the American voters.”
A reprimand would have allowed Rangel to avoid the humiliation of having to stand in the well of the House while Pelosi read the charges and committee’s findings for C-SPAN cameras and the world to see.
The vote deals a serious blow to Rangel’s legacy after a 40-year career in the House where the silver-haired elder statesmen was known for his jocularity, sartorial splendor and celebrated gravelly voice.
A weary and battle-worn Rangel, who spent more than two years fighting the charges, gave a last-ditch plea for leniency on the House floor before the debate over the censure began before a packed House gallery. He spent the days leading up to the vote lobbying colleagues for a reprimand rather than censure.
In a brief statement on the House floor, Rangel apologized to the crowd of lawmakers “or putting you in this very awkward position today.”
Rangel admitted he has made mistakes and said rules are made to be enforced. But Rangel said his mistakes were not severe enough to warrant censure.
Rangel argued “the humiliation of a censure” should not apply to him because the lead counsel on the ethics committee who was acting as a prosecutor at the public trial specifically said he found no evidence of corruption. He also stressed that he was not convicted of a crime.
During a frenzied period of lobbying for leniency earlier in the afternoon, Rangel’s allies insisted his mistakes did not merit a censure, in part because he did not benefit from his actions.
Butterfield said the last four censures, leveled over the last century, were for “despicable conduct” or acts of “dishonesty.”
“These are not acts of dishonesty,” he said. “What Rangel did was reckless and sloppy.”
Before Thanksgiving an ethics adjudicatory committee convicted Rangel of 11 counts of violating ethics rules. The charges include: improperly using his office to solicit donations for a school of public policy in his name at the City College of New York (CCNY), using a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem for his campaign office, failing to report more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure report, and failing to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.
In his written statement submitted by his attorneys in July, Rangel said the investigative subcommittee that brought charges against him “acted beyond the scope of its authority” and did not give him enough time to provide a defense, violating the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. He called their findings “deeply flawed.”
This story was updated at 7:42 p.m.
Mike Lillis, Russell Berman, Molly K. Hooper and Jordan Fabian contributed to this story.