By Michael O'Brien and Jared Allen - 03/03/10 04:45 PM EST
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has picked liberal firebrand Rep. Pete Stark to replace ousted Chairman Charles Rangel on the tax-writing committee, according to a House leadership aide.
The decision was made during a Wednesday morning leadership meeting following Rangel's announcement that he would temporarily step aside as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the aide said.
Rangel (N.Y.) had come under growing pressure in the wake of several ethics investigations, and he faced a vote Wednesday on a GOP-backed privileged resolution to force his ouster.
Before Rangel's announcement, the resolution appeared to be attracting enough Democratic support to win approval.
In Stark, Pelosi is picking a fellow Californian to head one of the House's most powerful committees. Stark becomes the sixth House Democratic chairman from the Golden State.
Stark is next in line for the post in seniority, but his maverick personality had led some to question whether he would get the gavel even on a temporary basis.
The 19-term Democrat has a penchant for making controversial remarks. In 2003, Stark challenged then Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) to a fight during a Ways and Means Committee hearing, calling him "a fruitcake." He also said in 2007 that President George W. Bush was amused by the heads of U.S. soldiers getting blown off. Pelosi condemned the remarks and Stark subsequently apologized on the House floor.
Last summer, Stark called Blue Dog Democrats "brain dead."
Picking Stark, an atheist, is “not without problems” for leaders and potentially for the caucus, according to a Democratic leadership aide.
But every scenario that involved anything other than a direct passing of the gavel to Stark — in accordance with standing House rules — would have brought the Steering and Policy Committee and very likely the full caucus into the mix, potentially for votes for and against certain members. This was exactly the situation that House leaders wanted to avoid heading into Wednesday, aides indicated.
Michigan Democrat Sandy Levin, who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, was rumored to be favored by leaders over Stark and in line to assume a temporary assignment as chairman.
Lewis and Levin both attended a private Ways and Means meeting Wednesday morning where Rangel explained his decision to temporarily give up his gavel. Stark, who has missed votes this week, was not present.
Stark's spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
CBC members reacted to the news of Stark’s ascension to the top post with tepid praise.
“We do believe in seniority around here," said Lewis. Lewis said the Ways and Means Committee would mean later Wednesday to discuss the news.
“Pete’s a good man. He’s next in line," said Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), giving a thumbs up sign.
Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) declined to comment about Stark.
"It’s not a good day when you have a decorated war veteran and respected member of this body give up his post," he said. “It’s not good for New York and it’s not good for the this body."
Rangel sent Pelosi a letter requesting the leave of absence. Rangel met with Pelosi to discuss the politically sensitive issue on Tuesday evening.
In the one-sentence letter, Rangel asked for the leave of absence from the chairmanship until the House ethics panel competes its reviews.
Rangel declined to take questions on the matter at his short press conference.
“I know that all of you have a professional obligation to ask questions,” Rangel said, adding he's “afraid that if I went down that road it would distract” him from efforts on healthcare and job creation.
He also said that he had offered his resignation to Pelosi before. "From the very, very beginning I have offered this to Speaker Pelosi," he said.
The House ethics panel last week found that Rangel violated House gift rules when he accepted reimbursement for two trips to the Caribbean that were sponsored by corporations. House ethics rules Democrats passed in 2007 after they won the majority bar corporations that employ lobbyists from sponsoring travel that lasts more than one day. Rangel has blamed his staff, claiming he was unaware of the corporate sponsors.
The panel is still scrutinizing other, more serious allegations against Rangel involving charges that he improperly used his office to raise money for an academic center at City College of New York that is named after him and failed to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, among others.
Rangel's announcement came the morning after he confidently told reporters Tuesday night, "You bet" he's still chairman of the powerful panel. Rangel made that statement as he emerged from a meeting with Pelosi, who minutes later offered a stern, "No comment." She later told The Hill, "I guess [Rangel] is still chair of Ways and Means."
Rangel had come under new pressure to resign his chairmanship from rank-and-file members, including Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), the first member of the CBC to break with Rangel.
In a statement, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan said, "By forcing Rep. Rangel out, Democrats undercut Republican efforts to portray them as soft on ethics, the very strategy that returned Democrats to the majority in the 2006 elections."
Susan Crabtree and Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.
This story was updated at 2:09 p.m.